Virginia Rep’s ‘Junie B. Jones’ teaches us all how to make friends in first grade and life
Read More: Audrey Kate Taylor, Austin Taylor Smith, B.J. Wilkinson, Caleb Wade, Chase Kniffen, Grey Garrett, Junie B. Jones: The Musical, Megan Tatum, Sarah Grady, Stephen Rudlin, Terri Power, Thomas Nowlin, Virginia Repertory Theater
Junie B. Jones has reservations about going into the first grade. So much has changed for her since kindergarten! It’s as if it was a lifetime ago. Last year’s best friend Lucille chooses new best friends: twin girls whom she picks because their names rhyme with hers. Junie’s school bus buddy has also dumped her for someone new. And she just had to get new glasses!
The pressure. The angst.
If you’re six or sixty, fitting in can be overwhelming. That is unless you have the great fortune to see Virginia Rep’s production of Junie B. Jones: The Musical.
The play is based on the popular children’s book series written by Barbara Park and illustrated by Denise Brunkus. The series was published by Random House from 1992-2013.
In the span of just one hour Junie works out all her problems through song, dance, and the company of some very loveable characters.
Not that it’s a musical for adults; just that adults can benefit from the same lessons they needed to learn when they were 6 or 7.
Virginia Rep’s children series have all been top notch and this production follows suit. Junie B. Jones’ world is beautifully created on the Willow Lawn stage.
Terri Power’s set design is very cool. Vibrant pastel crayon colors abound. The blend of colors and familiar geometric shapes of the stage and set causes déjà vu for adults, and comfort for the kids.
Powers’ design leaves plenty of space for Director Chase Kniffen to play with rolling school desks. The desks are a wonderful idea. They glide and slide, sometimes with the kids on them. Each actor becomes a desk driver throughout the play, navigating the space. Very entertaining in and of itself.
B.J. Wilkinson had to have had well over 100 lights hung, which made a great impression, not necessarily for their number, but for the creativity of using so many instruments harmoniously to create cooler theatrical effects. The over-all feel of the lighting was warm and inviting. The musical numbers were bathed in beautiful blues, reds and purples. The school room lighting, which I personally remember as a fluorescent headache, instead glowed with a brightness which had an element of fantasy to it.
The cast was nonpareil. The director exercised a keen eye for keeping a small ensemble focused.
Teenager Audrey Kate Taylor played cute as a button Junie B. Jones. Intelligent, worried, witty and resourceful, Junie navigates her way through pit-stops and pitfalls to find her rightful place in her world. Ms. Taylor has a natural and easy way about her, along with some great timing and singing skills. She is a firm anchor for the ensemble.
Junie’s classmates are played by some pretty wonderful actors who are obviously being paid to have too much fun. Aged anywhere from early 20’s to late 30’s these actors convinced me they were 6.
The men all get to put on drag and play women. They are too hilarious.
Thomas Nowlin starts off playing the upright, uptight classroom teacher Mr. Scary (he’s anything but) but he gets to bring out the inner Madea as the lunch lady, Mrs. Guzman, who bakes Junie cookies. Nowlin fills his bra with sashay and attitude. As funny as that was I may have enjoyed him more as the school bus driver losing control of the wheel for a second and recovering all flustered and discombobulated.
Caleb Wade and Austin Taylor Smith slipped on the dresses to play the twins that Junie lost her best friend Lucille, named Chenille and Camille. They killed as backup singers to Lucille’s love song to the trio, “Lucille. Camille, Chenille.” No bras for these very attractive chanteuses, au natural chests under their slinky dresses. Very sexy.
Oh. Um, no. Not sexy. Not in a kid’s show. Nope. Not even a little bit.
Caleb Wade has the opportunity to sing solo for us and it was very nice indeed. He looks like a leading man but he brings out a character voice. He played Junie’s new best friend, the slightly nerdy Herb. The two just might have a crush on each other. Really very sweet.
Taylor Smith was a very funny Sheldon Potts, the only one of Junie’s friends who tells us his last name. Sweetly nerdy and shy, Smith found nuggets of peculiar “Sheldon-ness” that were well thought out and very funny.
Grey Garrett was a wonderfully contrary Lucille, Junie’s ex-best friend. All snotty and sickly precocious, Ms. Garrett pouted and stomped until she let loose the big brass in her songs.
Megan Tatum is new to us but was my teenage daughter’s favorite character (Grace). Something about her mean girl snarl and pout touched a nerve. Grace is known to be competitive and a bit of a show-off. Here she serves as Junie’s major foil. Ms. Tatum, who co-choreographed with Director Kniffen, made an impression on both of us.
The ensemble sounded great and it’s in no small part due to the leadership of Musical Director Stephen Rudlin.
The costumes were adorable. Both boys and girls benefitted by the great attention to character Sarah Grady shows in dressing her actors.
Kniffen has endured my annoying peculiarities before and might again when I say that I so much more like his small stage direction. Of course he is a master of detail, how else can you produce behemoth musicals like The Color Purple or Dreamgirls. However, the human touch of his directorial hand is clearer, for me at least, in his more intimate work here and for Cadence Theatre.
Only an hour, it felt like a satisfying evening of good theatre. Junie B. Jones is a role model for little girls and Virginia Rep maintains that integrity while serving it up in a delicious confection of musical delight.
More of this, please.
Image via Virginia Rep
Fantasy playing is written in bigger brushstrokes, but not so big as to scare the babies.July 11, 2016
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