Childhood is one of the few beautiful experiences in this world that everyone can understand and empathize with because, well, we all have some sort of connection to it. Whether you’re currently in it, fresh out of it, attempting to avoid witnessing it (and hey, no shame to those of you adults that have chosen not to partake in parenthood. More power to you for knowing yourself and not embarking on the journey of having children when you know it’s not for you. But, alas, that’s a soapbox for another day), or those currently witnessing it take place through the lens of their own children, literally every single person is able to connect to its collective experience. This last Friday night I saw Junie B. Jones the Musical at the College of Southern Maryland and was privileged enough to get to reminisce on this very theme through the eyes of this production.
Given the state of our current world, sometimes you just need a wholesome, full-bellied laugh to brighten your spirits. I promise that this production will do just that.
Junie B. Jones the Musical (for those of you who live under a rock like me with a two-year-old child who doesn’t yet read most children’s books, but instead prefers Dr. Seuss exclusively) is, you guessed it, based on the famous children’s book series that shares the same name. Junie is your typical first grader who is trying her best to fit in with her peers and figure out her place in the world. This musical takes you through the beginning of her first-grade year and all of its ups and downs along the way. There are hilariously ridiculous musical numbers such as an entire song dedicated to how much everyone loves the lunch lady because of her amazing cookies. It’ll make you laugh and sympathize with its characters throughout the course of its brief story (this show is only a little over an hour long, making it perfect for young children to enjoy with their parents).
I believe that where the show truly shines is in how cohesive its ensemble is. The flexibility and ease with which each of these actors (most of whom were still kids themselves, so color me impressed) work together was an incredibly wonderful sight to behold. As always, there were a few actors in particular that I thought gave an exceptional performance.
Elizabeth Campbell played the feisty characters of May and Bobbi Jean Piper with a hilarious ferocity that had me laughing so hard at certain points that I was practically wheezing. Her sharp line deliveries possessed excellent comedic timing and an absurd amount of humorous punch. Isaiah Hilliard possessed this fantastically effortless authenticity in his portrayal of the new-kid-at-school Herb. His secondary role as Chenille had me practically dying of laughter every time she made an appearance. Jing Xi Qin played Daddy, Mr. Scary, and Gladys Gutzman. Friends, this man had me practically falling out of my seat when he appeared on the stage as the lunch lady Gladys. The way that he would drop from his falsetto female voice into a lower toned male voice whenever Junie said something odd was absolutely brilliant.
While I enjoyed the entirety of the ensemble cast, there was one actor in particular that utterly stole my attention. Caleb Smith, who portrayed Sheldon and Camille, was such a refreshingly thorough character actor. He did not simply ‘play’ the intensely awkward Sheldon. He became Sheldon. This kid (if you’re still a teenager, you’re a kid to me) changed the way that he walked and his hand gestures to match Sheldon’s. His delightful exuberance had me sympathizing, laughing with, and cheering Sheldon on all at once. It’s rare to find an actor so young who has developed such a grasp on what it means to truly embody the character that they are cast as. I look forward to getting to see him really hone his craft as an actor in future productions.
On the technical end of things, Kenneth L. Waters Jr. directed the production. I am always fond of a well-employed, gender-bending casting choice when done for comedic purposes (John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in the movie version of Hairspray still gets me every time). Waters really excelled at making this directorial choice and sticking to it at every turn. While the gender-bending choices were evidently done primarily for comedic effect, they never ceased to retain their authenticity. Once the male actors stepped in their female roles, Waters made sure that each one of them truly became their characters. Often times this artistic choice in musicals can be used to negatively poke fun at the stereotypical aspects of conventional femininity, but I at no point felt that Waters did that. For that, I wholeheartedly applaud him.
The set, as designed by Erik Braun, was a stationary set comprised of larger than life sized school books and such that were used to in all of the scenes as a backdrop. There were very little moving set pieces, but the simplicity of this set served the production’s intentions. There is a lovely innocence to childhood that I felt that this set helped to imbue the story with. Braun also designed the lighting, but I wasn’t as satisfied with its delivery. At times it was rather dark and the spotlight did not follow characters as adequately as it could have. For such an uplifting show, I feel that the lighting could have been a bit brighter and cheerier.
The costume design by Shemika Berry was very endearing and truly helped to tell the story of each of the characters. I appreciated little thoughtful details such as how if two characters were played by the same actor (for example Caleb Smith played both Sheldon and Camille), the costumes of each character shared a similar color palette. This creative choice allowed the audience to better track each actor’s performances and was just pleasing to the eye. Each costume was delightfully whimsical and fit seamlessly into the joyfully juvenile spirit of this show. However, my absolute favorite costume choice has got to be that of Gladys Gutzman’s spatulas tucked into her apron. That little touch had me simultaneously cackling to myself (I say cackling because it honestly got to that point) and wondering why I had never thought to do that myself whenever I cook.
So, who would I recommend this production to? Well, in short, basically anyone who needs a good laugh and enjoys reminiscing about what childhood was once like. I also think that this show could be beneficial to prospective and current parents of young children. I saw this show with a dear friend of mine and she remarked afterward how much it had given her insight into how her child’s mind works. Children will also really enjoy the fun of this production and how much they will be able to relate to its subject matters. So, do yourself (and your kids), a favor and go see this production while it’s still playing. Given the state of our current world, sometimes you just need a wholesome, full-bellied laugh to brighten your spirits. I promise that this production will do just that.
Running Time: 1 hour and 10 minutes with no intermission.
This show is suitable for all ages.
“Junie B. Jones, the Musical” will be playing at the Fine Arts Center of the La Plata Campus of the College of Southern Maryland through Sunday, November 24th. For more information, please visit their website here.