Little Miss Empowerment

Musical offers positive message and adult themes
Little Miss Empowerment
Photo courtesy of Music Theatre of Madison
The VW van the Hoover family travels in cross country is left to the imagination of the audience attending Music Theatre of Madison's production of "Little Miss Sunshine."

Meghan Randolph’s never been afraid to have her theater company tackle musicals featuring themes of empowerment. Around this time last year, Music Theatre of Madison was prepping to stage “Lizzie,” a rocker about an abused teen who took matters (and more specifically, an ax) into her own hands.

MTM’s next show, opening this Friday in the Memorial Union’s Play Circle, features empowerment, too — but this one’s a comedy, and there are no blunt instruments. (Just a lot of blunt language.) Opening this Friday

That underdog backstory is baked into the show’s DNA. Start with the plot, which follows a massively dysfunctional family — heroin users, romantic failures and takers of bizarre vows of silence — brought together on a dilapidated VW bus by an 8-year-old girl’s cross-country quest to win a beauty pageant.

The show’s themes were one of the reasons Randolph was drawn to the show. “It has a lot of issues important to our culture right now,” says Randolph, MTM’s executive director.

“The message of acceptance in young women translates to adulthood. For women, defining your success by your appearance remains a serious problem. Plus, I just like that there’s a 10-year-old girl (in the leading role) who surprises everybody. That she does so in a very adult situations just adds to the appeal.”

The 10 year old in question is Abigail Dalton, the Janesville native who scored the role of Olive in auditions. She’s one of several young ‘uns in the cast (the rest play mean girls who bully Olive during the pageant). Randolph assembled her cast using a largely open process. Bart Terrell, who’s playing Olive’s F-bomb dropping grandfather, was the only actor she directly approached. (“I asked. He was like, O.K.,” Randolph says.) Liz Griffiths, who has been in plenty of MTM shows (“Lizzie” and “Nine” to name just two) is also on board.

“I love how when we audition these shows, the talent just comes out of the woodwork,” says Randolph.

While there are children in the cast, there are some thorny themes — in addition to coarse language and the drug references, one of the character survived a previous suicide attempt. MTM smartly posted a content advisory on its website so parents thinking about bringing kids to the show can be fully informed about what they’re likely to see (and hear).

“It’s really funny and fun,” says Randolph of the show. “The movie is dark, but we think of the show as a comedy.”

One thing audiences won’t see? The beater VW. “We’re not going to have a literal bus,” she admits. “The audience will have to use its imagination for that part.”

“Little Miss Sunshine” opens Friday, Aug. 17, and runs through Aug. 25 in the Memorial Union Play Circle. For tickets, click here.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for