I’ve got to hand it to director Kimberly Kurtenbach, who expertly captured every child’s attention before last Thursday’s performance of the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook by blasting the ever-popular Baby Shark. When the dance party was cut off for pre-show announcements, the room full of smiling children was already fully engaged and ready to be wowed.
Based on Barbara Park’s popular book series, Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook features our favorite precocious kindergartener Junie B. who has lost her mittens – they aren’t even in the school’s lost-and-found box. But then Junie finds a pen that can write with four different colors, and instead of turning it in to the lost-and-found box, she opts to keep it. Because “finders keepers” isn’t the same thing as being a crook ... is it?
Helene Divine brings Junie B. Jones to life with great joy and spunk, exactly as one would expect, and was an overall bright spot in this production. Junie B. is unique, that’s inarguable, and costume designer Gregory Hiatt managed to visually encapsulate the character with polka-dotted overalls, a striped shirt, and a large, yellow bow to hide her “baldy spot.” Junie B.’s humor stems mainly from her misuse of words and gross exaggerations, but in a show with a lot of stage action, some of the best moments seemed to go over the heads of the kids, and therefore this production lacked the overall charm of the books.
Why children’s entertainment insists on perpetuating the trope of adults being mean, stupid, or both, I’m not sure. But this production featured that mindset in spades, the worst offender being Sydney Dexter’s kindergarten teacher Mrs. (She has another name, too, but Junie B. just likes to call her “Mrs.”) If my kindergartener was spoken to with as much contempt as Dexter speaks to the students in room nine, I would be steamed! And while I understand it was probably a choice made to differentiate between the character of Mrs. and Dexter’s opposite role of Mother (who was more understanding and soft-spoken), Mrs. nevertheless took “exasperated” to an altogether nasty extreme. Unfortunately, Brad Hauskins’ Principal also suffered the same “adults are idiots” fate, but luckily, Jake Daley's Grandpa Frank Miller was spared. Junie B. and Grandpa Frank Miller have a special relationship throughout the book series, and that was certainly evident by the life lesson imparted in this production by an entirely loveable Daley.
Junie B.’s best friends Lucille (Joanna Mills) and Grace (Kirsten Sindelar) seemed to be having a ball. In a heightened-reality production featuring adults as kindergartners, these two brought just the right dollop of zany to the stage without overdoing it. Mills finds a sweet spot in making the slightly snooty Lucille comedic instead of annoying; even the cash-register sound effect that punctuated her announcements of the prices of wardrobe items played out as funny rather than ridiculous. Sindelar, meanwhile, was lovely as Grace. I just wish the role had allowed her to more than gallop around the stage on a make-believe horse, as it really felt like Sindelar had more to give.
The Junie B. Jones set was composed of brightly colored boxes that represented nearly every set piece imaginable from the playground equipment to the classroom. And major shout-outs to the cast who completely committed to the four-blocks-as-a-seesaw idea … especially since I don’t know where one can even find a seesaw these days. The only downside of Kurtenbach's extremely flexible staging was that occasionally the scene shifts seemed to drag, and Thursday's under-12 set became especially wiggly during those moments.
Lighting designer Alexandria Weese kept the stage bright and cheerful, although when Junie B. used her imagination, there were lighting effects that made the stage a little darker. The numerous children I had the pleasure to see the show with (courtesy of several elementary-school field trips that day) especially liked those moments, and there was a particularly fabulous point in which Junie B.'s drawing got the kids excited – at least as much as when Mrs. walked on stage holding a bag of Doritos. (Who knew a bag of chips could pack such a big punch?) Also, I imagine no one expected audience members to taunt Junie B. throughout the show with the name “Nutball” after the new kid at school, Handsome Warren (played by an excellent Derrick Bertram), called her that on the playground and backed it up with an echo effect care of sound designer Bret Churchill.
Circa '21's Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook may not make all the grown-ups in the room shout an exuberant, Junie B.-famous “Wowie wow wow!” But there was a solid life lesson about doing the right thing, my four-year-old enjoyed it, and it seemed that the rest of the show's intended audience did, as well.
Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Svenue, Rock Island) through May 18, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.