Pat Launer on Stick Fly

March 13, 2011

“LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE” – La Jolla Playhouse & “STICK FLY” – Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company

When families find themselves cramped together in close quarters, temperatures inevitably rise, sparks fly, secrets are unearthed and havoc ensues. Sometimes, it’s a voyeuristic treat to watch a dysfunctional family unravel. At other times, not so much.

One of the most highly anticipated shows of the year was the world premiere musical, “Little Miss Sunshine,” at La Jolla Playhouse, based on the much-loved 2006 indie film. All the stars were aligned for a Broadway-bound blockbuster: terrific source material, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/director James Lapine, a score by his frequent collaborator, composer/lyricist William Finn, and a cast with impressive Broadway credits.

But the result falls disappointingly flat. It’s lost all the quirky charisma of the original. This family isn’t eccentric; it’s garden variety, with a little exaggeration, and fairly colorless at that. We don’t come to care about their road-trip travails, and most disheartening of all, we’re not really committed to little Olive, the slightly chubby, highly precocious 10 year-old who convinces her family to drive from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, so she can compete in one of those creepy kid beauty pageants.

There are a few touching or amusing moments, but no memorable songs (among the sometimes atonal offerings), and no knockout performances. The singing pseudo-Greek chorus is intrusive and repetitive. Otherwise, though, Lapine’s direction is quite imaginative.

The unequivocal stars of the show are the scenic and lighting designs, which brilliantly convey the ever-changing southwest landscape in this supposedly dark comic road trip. In its present form, the overly long, overly safe musical is nowhere near ready for Broadway primetime.

The hapless Hoovers at the La Jolla Playhouse are a far cry from the LeVay family that just settled into the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown, brought to us by Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. In “Stick Fly,” the family is strictly upper crust, among the well-heeled, well-educated African Americans who’ve been summering on Martha’s Vineyard for a century.

During one incendiary weekend, when the two sons bring home their girlfriends – one black, one white – deep-rooted conflicts escalate, focused on race, class, skintone, parent-child relationships, and what it means to be a man.

Boston-based playwright Lydia Diamond has armed her riveting 2006 play with linguistic grenades, tossed into the psychological warfare among formidably smart, literate, caustic, wounded, complex characters. The barbs are hurtful, the plot turns unpredictable.

Under the intense, muscular direction of Robert Barry Fleming, the cast is stellar, each actor mining deep veins of anger, resentment and insecurity. When scabs are picked, metaphorical blood flows, and a large chunk of the history of blacks in America is exposed.

The takeaway from this week’s dramatic offerings is: Not all theatrical families are equally compelling and edifying.

The Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company production of “Stick Fly” runs through March 20 at the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown San Diego.
The world premiere of “Little Miss Sunshine” continues through March 27 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

© 2011 Pat Launer


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