Dick Latessa as “Grandpa” and Georgi James as “Olive Hoover” in Little Miss Sunshine, a musical that “needs work.”
  • Dick Latessa as “Grandpa” and Georgi James as “Olive Hoover” in Little Miss Sunshine, a musical that “needs work.”
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So how do you re-create a road movie on stage? Best of show at La Jolla Playhouse’s hit-and-miss Little Miss Sunshine:

David Korins’s set, enhanced by Ken Billington’s bold lighting, depicts the shifting geography from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California. Three fluctuating lines on the rear wall reconfigure hills and mountains. And if you’ve ever made that trek, on old Route 66, one look at the ridgeline would tell you where you are. At Albuquerque, for example, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains loom in the distance about three-quarters of the way up the wall. At Kingman, on a mesa, the terrain is much flatter. At Ontario, you can see the white-capped sliver of a mountain behind the mountains. The Mandell Weiss Theatre has a tall proscenium. Designers have had to fill the top third with something. To my recollection, no one has kept it more alive or interesting at the Weiss than Korins.

The yellow VW microbus — the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”? — that barely makes the trip also metamorphoses: from a mobile toy that scoots across a walkway to a door-less, topless, life-sized version that breaks down almost as much as the family in it.

Screenwriter Michael Arndt got the idea for the movie from a speech Arnold Schwarzenegger gave to high school students: “If there’s one thing in the world I hate, it’s losers. I despise them.” Arndt despised that attitude, he told an interviewer, and “wanted to attack that idea that in life you’re going up or you’re going down.” James Lapine’s and William Finn’s musical version of the film is on the road, so to speak, but has miles to go to reach California.

The opening-night performance took a good half hour to wake up. The first song — “Ten Steps for Success” — preaches to the audience (the ironies imbedded in its self-help slogans come later), and the second scene brings the family onboard one by one, like Noah’s Ark, with back-story for each.

The Hoover family — wannabe self-help guru Richard, harried wife Sheryl, her suicidal brother Frank, sex-starved, smack-snorting Grandpa, and sullen Dwayne — finally get good news: young Olive qualified for a beauty pageant in Redondo Beach (okay, there were only three contestants: #1 dropped out and #3 had a clubfoot). And off they go. For almost three hours.

At first it looks like each scene will illustrate (or debunk) one of Richard’s bromides (step two: “Good Enough Is Never Good Enough”). But that notion gets dropped around Gallup. What remains consistent: an attempt to encircle real-life stuff (suicide, social stresses, teenage angst, damaging ideals) with a chipper halo, to underline, in effect, the “fun” in dysfunction. The result’s a strange, passive-aggressive tone — ain’t life zany? — determined, above all else, to entertain.

Some of William Finn’s songs develop character (“Grandpa’s Advice,” a paean to sexual vigor belted by Dick Latessa, is a hoot; and Richard’s moving “What You Left Behind,” about a father’s legacy sung with feeling by Hunter Foster, stands out as the real deal). But many early numbers fall on the bland side and slow momentum.

Directed by James Lapine, the production is always theatrical, but much of its energy comes when the script leaves the familiar movie: as when Miss California (Zakiya Young) sings “Too Much Information,” about bouts with bulimia. At the pageant, Young and Eliseo Roman, as the emcee, cut loose with the title song.

The designers solved the story’s biggest problem: how to move visually, on a stage, from New Mexico to California. What happens along the way, however, needs work.

For 28 years, Russ Lewis (1957–2011) was the Reader’s bottom line. As the paper’s main proofreader, he was a warrior for correctness. Gruff, bluntly honest, he took comma splices, dangling modifiers, and stylistic sloth personally, and never held back from informing writers of their failings.

“Man,” he once yelled at me, “you can’t have a noun modifying a noun!”

“But, Russ, ‘life style’ is idiomatic. It’s...”

“Plain WRONG!”

Russ did his job with the drive of an artist — of the invisible: you saw his presence in the absence of mistakes.

Behind the scenes he had a kind of local omniscience. Like God, or J. Edgar Hoover, Russ knew all the “Reader writers’” sins (and maybe hated that expression, another noun modifying a noun, most of all). But beneath the Zeus-grade furor and obsession with order, there beat a heart of gold.

When it came to grammatical niceties, he and I used to battle like brothers, because we were. Even when he was in the hospital (he died of cancer, February 23), I still emailed him my work: out of respect; and in the hope that he might, I don’t know, give it a quick read? ■

Little Miss Sunshine, book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by William Finn.
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD.
Directed by James Lapine; cast: Bradley Dean, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Hunter Foster, Malcolm Gets, Georgi James, Dick Latessa, Eliseo Roman, Andrew Samonsky, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Taylor Trensch, Sally Wilfert, Zakiya Young; scenic design, David Korins, costumes, Jennifer Caprio, lighting, Ken Billington, sound, Dan Moses Schreier, musical director, Vadim Feichtner, choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.
Playing through March 27; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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