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Theatre in Review: Junie B.'s Essential Survival Guide to School (Theatreworks USA)

The company. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

If you're looking to introduce a little one to theatre, you should consider stopping by the Lucille Lortel, where the long-running children's theatre producer Theatreworks is presenting its latest musical about Junie B. Jones. The beloved character, the brainchild of the late children's book author Barbara Park, is an obstreperous first-grader whose candid opinions and anger management problems are forever getting her into hot water. Junie's intentions are the best, I hasten to add: In this adventure, she decides to write the book of the title, in order to help future first-graders navigating the wilds of their first full year in school.

Bossy as she is, Junie B. has her collegial side, as well, so she enlists some of her classmates to help with the project. Her friend Sheldon is allowed to air his obsession with backpacks. Lucille, the school's in-house fashion plate, expounds on clothes. Another little girl, May, has a great deal to say about school supplies; Junie B. can barely tolerate May, however, since the latter always forgets Junie B.'s middle initial. Such slips as these unleash "El Toro Fabuloso," described by Junie as "the bull who lives inside my stomach," and who personifies Junie's seemingly ungovernable temper.

Rest assured, Junie's outbursts are pretty mild, reaching their peak of fury when she denounces someone as "a smelly head." She's many steps below The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark, so nobody at "Clarence B. Somebody or Other School" is subjected to grievous bodily harm. Basically a revue of musical numbers strung along a thin narrative line about Junie learning a lesson about herself, the show is a fast-moving entertainment that should keep young audiences diverted for 60 minutes.

Keeping things buoyant is the score, by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, the cabaret favorites (best-known among adults for the song "Taylor, the Latte Boy"), which repeatedly injects the proceedings with fresh bursts of energy. The catchiest are the title tune and the finale, "The Things You Learn Along the Way," although I suspect the underaged will prefer numbers like "Backpacks on Parade" and "Some Stuff About Clothes," as staged by the choreographer Devanand Janki.

Kristin Stokes pretty much dominates the action as Junie B., but the director, Peter Flynn, has gotten charming performances from the rest of the company, as well. In Luke Hegel-Cantarella's charming design, the set is a giant ring binder that opens up to become the school interior -- and, thanks to paste-on attachments that function like Colorforms, can become other locations as well. Lora LaVon's costumes allow for many rapid-fire changes as the cast members shuffle between playing kids and adult characters. Grant W. S. Yeager's lighting complements the bright, children's-book colors of the set. Laura Brauner's sound design could use a slight tweak; the cast sings to recorded music and occasionally is overwhelmed by it.

Nevertheless, at the performance I attended, a full house of grade schoolers (and some who were younger) was fairly rapt all the way through Junie B.'s Essential Survival Guide to School. This is the best evidence I can think of that Theatreworks is doing something right. -- David Barbour


(2 August 2016)

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