Little Lake Theater makes bold statement with Little Miss Sunshine

By September 5, 2018 No Comments

” I can’t think of too many other local theaters with the daring-do to produce a show like this

Nate Butler, Warren Ashburn, Lola Armfield, Leah Hillgrove, Max Andrae and Chris Martin in Little Lake’s production of Little Miss Sunshine

All hail Little Lake Theatre! Now celebrating their 70th season, this “community” theater in McMurray regularly defies convention with shows you’d probably never see at other community theaters. Having survived a summer of sex comedies, warhorse musicals and dusty mysteries, Little Lake is a bracing, and enjoyable, restorative.

And they’ve certainly picked a dilly this time.

In 2006 the indie film Little Miss Sunshine turned out to be a surprise hit, pulling in lots of cash and four Academy Award nominations. The story concerns a dysfunctional family in New Mexico – the Hoovers. (No relation, though God knows they’re screwed up enough to be.)

The father (Richard) has recently been laid off and grandpa’s been kicked out of his retirement home for doing drugs. Frank, the brother-in-law, has recently attempted suicide after his boyfriend left him and Dwayne, the son, hasn’t spoken in eight months. Holding herself, and all of them, together (and then only just barely) is Sheryl the mom.

Little Miss Sunshine continues through Sept 15. Little Lake Theatre, Canonsburg. 724/745-6300.

But things, believe it or not, become even more strained when the daughter, Olive, qualifies to enter the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty contest if she can get to Southern California in two days. So the whole family piles into a dilapidated VW bus and sets out on a 800-mile road trip.

I’m always amazed when someone looks at material likes this and says: “This’ll make a great musical!”

In this case the someones are composer/lyricist William Finn and bookwriter James Lapine – creators of such landmarks as Falsettoland and A New Brain – who opened their musical version off-Broadway in 2013.

Outside of the “Lake,” I can’t think of too many other local theaters – and certainly no other summer theater – with the derring-do to produce a show like this for an audience more accustomed to Neil Simon and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

So all hail Little Lake Theatre! Because it’s not the big, swollen Broadway tours or the trendy, gimmicky companies that’ll keep theater alive; it’s these outfits in far flung places which serve as a ready option (along with movies and television) when folks are choosing their entertainment for the evening.

And that concludes the good news.

In spite of featuring several major New York actors, that off-Broadway production closed in a month’s time. And now, thanks to this Pittsburgh premiere at Little Lake, it’s easy to see why. Little Miss Sunshine isn’t a musical. Every time the music starts it always feels like the play-version of Little Miss Sunshine stops so somebody can sing an extraneous song. And Finn’s trademark as a songwriter – tunes of joyful beautiful in the face of misery – simply feel grafted onto a story notable for its relentless downward spiral into degradation and despair.

I applaud director Sara Barbisch for trying to fit this physical production into a space clearly not meant for it, but ultimately the space wins.

The always compelling Leah Hillgrove fully inhabits Sheryl’s pain and aching love. Chris Martin plays several nice moments as Frank and Warren Ashburn knows how to mine for comedy gold. Max Andrae creates something out of the impossible character of Dwayne and Katie Kerr Springer made me laugh as a retiring beauty queen.

The role of Olive is played at alternate performances by Lola Armfield and the young actress I saw Chloe Griffin who, if you ask me, certainly earns the title of “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Ted Hoover is the Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic. Reach him at

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