Junie B. Jones at First Stage Children’s Theater
Junie B. Jones is kind of a brat. At least, she is in this musical stage interpretation of the popular children’s book. Perhaps, it should be noted that I saw only one of two possible interpretations on Sunday, as the “Young Performers” cast made up mostly of First Stage Theater Academy actors are split up (into ‘Awesome’ or ‘Brilliant’) to ease the show count burden. In this version, Junie is played by ‘Brilliant’ cast member Mari Duckler.
In a playbill note by Director John Maclay, he admits that Junie is “brash, egocentric, has very little impulse control and is unintentionally hilarious. In short … she’s five.”
This is the positive way of looking at the precocious kindergartner at the center of Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, as it starts off with a number called The World According to Me. In the story, Junie is told by her mother (a very pregnant Beth Mulkerron) that she’s going to have a new sibling. Junie doesn’t like it — not because she won’t be the center of attention but because a previous baby she met “smelled like P.U.”
We also meet Grampa Miller, played here by Robert Spencer, who was last seen in the kinetic Around the World in 80 Days at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. The comedically talented Spencer plays appropriately gentle here as a comfort to Junie, but also gets a few moments to shine in a musical ensemble number where he and others don tutus.
Joan Cushing’s adaptation of Barbara Park’s material works to imagine that we are reading the original books — only with fanciful musical numbers at spaced-out periods. The show numbers are kind of interchangeable, and the choreography is limited by the stage; but the children in the audience get it. I saw some trying to emulate the body movements, and others applauded wildly after each number.
Through the minds of children may be the most important way of looking at this production. The set has been colorfully decorated and patterned after children’s books, maybe even more so than book series illustrator Denise Brunkus does it. The point-of-view is through Junie’s eyes and sense of reasoning. Characters are flawed, but they are also open to learning what things mean (like when Grandma says your new brother is a little monkey, it’s just an expression).
Given the depth and complexity of previous First Stage seasons and challenges later this season (I’m looking forward to James DeVita’s take on The Thief Lord by fantasy writer Cornelia Funke), this present musical may be just the right balance for a weekend stage show with your little one.
Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business continues at the Todd Wehr Auditorium in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts until Nov. 15. Two Sunday performances were added for that last day due to popular demand, so be sure to order your tickets online or call 414-273-7206.