Push a Volkswagon Kombi Van down the highway if need be, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ at Phoenix Ensemble in Beenleigh is a must-see. It may only be January, but it was abundantly clear that audiences will be hard-pressed to find a musical with more heart in any company’s 2020 season.
Based on the 2006 film of the same name, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ follows the highly dysfunctional Hoover family on a weekend road trip as daughter, Olive chases her beauty pageant dreams. With music and lyrics by William Finn (‘Falsettos’, ‘A New Brain’) and book by James Lapine (‘Into the Woods’) this show proves to be as quirky, unsettling, and heartwarming as one would expect from such a team. A dark comedy with strong language and themes of drug-use, suicide, and body snatching – this is definitely not one for young children. Despite that warning, however, the audience leaves feeling a sense of community having shared in the Hoover family’s experiences.
Director and set designer, Bradley Chapman has brought an ensemble piece to the stage in the truest sense. Each character brought to life by this cast is dripping with deliciously subtle nuance adding to the realism and relatable content of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. In keeping the stage quite bare, other than stacks of tyres and children’s chalk drawings, Chapman has cleverly kept family relationships as the centre focus. Benjamin Tubb Hearne’s musical direction is a treat. Vocally, complex harmonies are tight and clean, not to mention balanced beautifully and a band of expert musicians round out the production with flawless perfection. Tubb-Hearne is also credited as lighting designer, his debut in this field, and his concept combined with Chapman’s use of simple set pieces to create believable spaces is effective and commendable.
Michael Ware and Samara Marinelli as Richard and Sheryl Hoover share authentic chemistry as a husband and wife on the edge. While there were a few small dialogue slips from the pair, the experienced actors carried on with barely a moment’s hesitation. Ware approaches his role with a sure-footed awkwardness reminiscent of Jason Bateman in ‘Arrested Development’ with good vocals that are at times silky-smooth. Marinelli shines as the matriarch of the family, with a stunning voice and parental exasperation in spades. Her rendition of ‘Something Better Better Happen’ is a highlight, showcasing Marinelli’s immense talent. Moments of restraint and release make the number an incredibly moving experience.
Dom Bradley’s portrayal of Proust scholar, Uncle Frank is both devastating and joyous. Bradley is a delight to watch and he shows great emotional depth, playing his role with empathy and wit. Chris Catherwood is all sex, drugs, and swagger as Grandpa Hoover and audience members will long remember why he is ‘The Happiest Guy in the Van’. In contrast, Catherwood’s interactions with Olive, are some of the sweetest moments in the show. Blake Omundson’s silence speaks volumes as Nietzsche-obsessed teen, Dwayne Hoover. His physicality, facial expressions, and expert comic timing make him an absolute stand-out.
In contrast to her neurotic family, Eva Rose McMurray bursts onstage as cute as a button in her role as Olive Hoover. McMurray expertly handles her first leading role with a sweet voice and boundless energy. Her focus throughout the show is exemplary and her dance number in act two is an absolute show-stopper that left the audience delighted. McMurray is backed (or rather, mocked) by a team of mean girls played by Tia Godbold, Cadence Goodreid, Ainslie Ryan and Neia Oliphant who double as Olive’s cruel inner-voice and fellow pageant competitors. Their interactions are fun and at times hilarious and each of the girls show great promise and talent beyond their years.
The cast is completed with three exceptional ensemble performers who take on multiple roles. Brendan Dieckmann, Daniel Lelic, and Annie Delioglanis provide some great comedic moments. With crystal-clear vocals, Lelic is one to watch. His portrayal of Uncle Frank’s former lover, Joshua Rose, is sickeningly smug and relatable for anyone who’s ever had an ex they love to hate and hate to love.
Technically, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is simple, yet phenomenal. Costumes by Justin Tubb-Hearne, Tammy Richards and Victoria Sica are colour-themed to sun-kissed perfection, a motif which carries through to Chapman’s set and even the programme, designed by Benjamin Tubb-Hearne. Jacob Cash’s sound design is impeccable, supporting the cast and band expertly, this is a sound designer who is going to be in high demand moving forward.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is a show about the actions of a family with nothing to lose, whose love for one another outweighs their extreme dysfunction. While audiences will laugh at the absurdity of the plot, the essence of the show is real and relatable, filled with heartwarming moments that remind us there is no such thing as a normal family. If great theatre evokes many emotions, then a night out at Phoenix Ensemble’s ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is decidedly a night of great theatre.
‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was presented by Phoenix Ensemble and plays for seven more performances – every Friday and Saturday until February 22. Tickets ($30) are still available at https://phoenixensemble.com.au.
In the interests of bias, this article has been written and edited solely by the author. This article was uploaded to our website by Shane Webb.