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THEATER REVIEW: “Little Miss Sunshine” is a work in progress

Translating a hit film to the musical comedy stage is tricky business, especially when the source material is a road movie.

But Broadway veteran writer/composer/directors James Lapine and William Finn liked the Oscar-nominated 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine” so much that they decided to give it a go. The musical version is at La Jolla Playhouse through March 27, with Lapine at the helm.

The title character is chubby Albuquerque 12-year-old Olive Hoover (Georgi James), who ends up by default in the finals of the fictional Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, and needing to get to the golden state for the competition.

The problem is, Olive is part of a quirky family, several of whose members can’t be left alone. That means firing up the tired old stick-shift VW van and dragging everybody along.

Olive’s father Richard (Hunter Foster) is trying to make a buck peddling the snake oil of “10 steps to success.” They don’t seem to be working for him, but his wife Sheryl (Jennifer Laura Thompson) puts up with him anyway, concentrating her efforts on whatever needs doing next.

Olive’s teenage brother Dwayne (Taylor Trensch) has his sights on a career as an Air Force test pilot, and for no apparent reason has taken a vow of silence until that goal is achieved.

Their uncle Frank (Malcolm Gets), an eminent Proust scholar recently driven to a suicide attempt by a broken romance with another Proust expert, still has the “stigmata” to prove it.

And then there’s Grandpa (Dick Latessa), recently tossed out of his fourth retirement home for inappropriately libidinous behavior.

The gang will stuff itself into the big yellow van (the one with the non-functional clutch) and try to make it to California in time for the pageant.

It’s a cute idea for a film, less so for a musical, despite the endearingly oddball characters. Stagecraft and technical wizardry count for a lot these days, and many will love the cleverly constructed VW van (which moves by characters’ foot action). I was less enamored of the other three van incarnations of different sizes (I got the point the first time), but that is a minor cavil compared with the wildly variable quality of the score, and the fact that there just isn’t enough story to warrant the 2:45 runtime.

Finn and Lapine have great Broadway pedigrees, and I was with them for the first half, though I wearied quickly of Richard’s excessive iterations of the success theme. By the second act, the songs started to sound alike.

But let’s give credit where it’s due: There are four extraordinary songs in this score. “How Have I Been?” is a lovely tribute to the man who got away; “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” grandpa’s sweet ode to Olive’s inner, if not outer beauty; Richard’s poignant song to his deserter father, “What You Left Behind,” may bring a tear to the eye; and Miss California’s comic “Too Much Information,” about the world of beauty pageants, is wonderfully performed by Zakiya Young.

This is a good cast, doing what they can with a mildly amusing script that needs tightening in a show that made me want to watch the film again.

The details

“Little Miss Sunshine” plays through March 27 at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.

For tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.