"Little Miss Sunshine," a family road movie involving an old VW bus, hardly screams out to be staged as a musical. But don't tell composer/lyricist William Finn and writer/director James Lapine.
The team, whose "Falsettos" made extraordinary song and humor in the depths of the AIDS horror, also helped create an unlikely Broadway hit from a middle-school competition in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
Now they are back at Second Stage where that show opened in 2005. The result may not be as deep and daring as "Falsettos" or as blissfully improbable as "Spelling Bee." But the 100-minute chamber musical is an ingenious, jaunty, sweet but not sticky sweet invention that honors the hit movie while, unlike so many adaptations, happily justifies its life on the stage.
Like the movie, this is the story of a crumbling family of believable eccentrics who, for complicated reasons, decide to drive daughter Olive, 7, from Albuquerque to compete in a little-girl beauty pageant in Southern California.
Reconceived after a 2011 LaJolla, Calif., premiere, deftly recast and restaged with high-imagination, low-tech flash, the show touches a lot of genuine problems with good humor and just a bit of serious anguish. Will Swenson and Stephanie J. Block are engaging and desperate as the parents, Richard and Cheryl. He was laid off and can't get his self-help blog published. She is too harried to use much of the "wild expressive mind" her husband describes during a courtship flashback.
Hannah Nordberg makes a spunky, not-too-grownup Olive, whose optimism sings in counterpoint to the adult's downbeat hymn of staccato syncopation, "The Way of the World." Holding the family oddly together is the raunchy, cokehead grandpa (a gleeful David Rasche in the role unforgettably created by Alan Arkin). Cheryl's gay brother (Rory O'Malley) is a Proust professor back from slicing his wrists over losing a buff young love. Olive's teen brother (Logan Rowland) has taken a vow of silence and reads Nietzsche. "You're reading the wrong outcast" is the uncle's advice.
Lapine's book is full of such smart little throwaways. Highlights of his staging include three priceless "mean girls" who taunt Olive from a trapdoor, and a bus trip conveyed by little more than yellow kitchen chairs on wheels. Finn's songs, despite a few atypically lazy lyrics, include such yearning beauties as "Something better better happen and it better happen soon." In a season hungry for new musicals, better happens here.
WHAT "Little Miss Sunshine"
WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.
INFO $69-$84; 212-246-4422; 2st.com
BOTTOM LINE Finally, a worthy movie adaptation.