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Avid young readers are already familiar with the series of books by Barbara Park and her extra special main character, Junie B. Jones. Jones and her experiences are aimed at helping new students enter and negotiate the often-perilous rigors of first grade. Junie B. Jones, the Musical, adapted from these books by Marcy Heisler with music by Zina Goldrich, combines a total of five of these books to bring Junie and her friends to the stage. Junie is a rather precocious six-year-old who must weather the meeting of new friends (and the loss of old ones), needing to wear glasses, and many other perils that seem to us to be minor annoyances but must be very upsetting to a child of only six.
Raleigh Little Theatre brings Junie B. Jones, the Musical to their Cantey stage, wedging fifteen characters and sixteen songs into a scant 65 minutes of showtime. If you do the math, that's about four minutes per song, excluding time for dialogue. Needless to say, this show clipped along at a pretty staggering rate for kids who are supposed to be only six. But this enthusiastic class of young actors made it work. Of the fifteen cast members, only four are adults: Mr. Scary (Dan Bain), the first-grade teacher; Mom and Dad (Paula Andrews and Troy A. Jelley); and Mrs. Gutzman (Rylee Davis), the cafeteria cook. Everyone else plays a first-grader. Junie herself is portrayed by Jenna Davenport, who did a superbly enthusiastic job of keeping Junie positive, despite some pretty severe obstacles.
Junie has ten classmates, each of whom has his or her own characteristics, and/or plays a stereotypical role. We meet Herb (Matthew Bain), the new kid from another kindergarten who becomes Junie's best friend. Opening night, the actress who was to have portrayed Grace was ill, so playing the dual roles of both Grace and Bobbie Jean Piper was Britney Duong. Thus the scene on the bus, where Grace and Bobby Jean sit side by side and engage in a three-way conversation with Junie, was very interesting. Duong did an elegant job of switching characters extremely quickly.
The sixteen songs come thick and fast, one immediately after the other, and choreographer Susan Hill did not let anyone rest; these are all company numbers. Everyone sings, everyone dances, and everyone participates in scene changes. There may very well be a reason this show is short; two acts at this pace might wear a youngster out! From scurrying about the classroom to performing a dance straight out of A Chorus Line, all fourteen cast members were kept extremely busy! To their credit, the action and the enthusiasm never waned.
Junie must face many tests that will be familiar to anyone who survives first grade, from having to get glasses to having to perform at the Kickball Tournament half-time show. She also loses her BFF from kindergarten, Lucille (Callie Colvard), when Lucille decides her new best friends will be the twins, Camille (Claire Fellows) and Chenille (Leah Bason). Not only do the three emphasize their trio now rhymes, they also form the very first clique within the primary school by appointing themselves cheerleaders for the Kickball Tournament.
There are some interesting aspects of Junie to note. These students are expected to read on the first day of class; this old timer recalls that, though I was taught to read prior to first grade by my mom, such was not the norm. Reading and spelling were a part of the classroom curriculum, and we didn't start writing until well into the next year. And the stereotypes developed in this class of first graders did not manifest themselves until much later in actual life. The smug smartest in class, the shy nerd, the dual-language immigrant, and the clique-ish cheerleaders, all came along much later in my elementary school career than first grade. It makes one wonder if the rigors of first grade are even more pronounced in this day and age than they were when we were at that level.
This cast must be an ensemble from the very first scene, when the entire cast backs Junie in her excitement because her mom has given her a new journal for the first day of class. "Top Secret Personal Beeswax" sets a very high bar of enthusiasm and interaction, and that level is maintained by these students — and, for that matter, the adults, too — throughout. Except for the occasional standout, most notably "Sheldon Potts’ Halftime Show" (starring David Mills as Sheldon), the cast plays an ensemble throughout. And quite well, too. This cast earned more than one round of applause and an enthusiastic roar of approval at the finale.
Junie B. Jones, the Musical is quite a surprise package, from a super Junie to a well-tempered ensemble. As one would expect, the kids outdo the grown-ups hands down, culminating in a finale played in the aisles of the house and a post-show meet-and-greet by the cast in the lobby afterward. The audience was treated to an excellent evening, but it sure looked to this observer like the real fun was being had on stage.
Junie B. Jones, the Musical continues through Sunday, March 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.