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Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

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She’s a five year-old in kindergarten, Room Nine. In another year she’ll be wearing glasses. At the moment she wears a ribbon in her hair, but when the glasses come, the ribbon is gone. She was born in the month of June, so her parents called her Junie.  Her middle name is Beatrice, but she doesn’t like it, so she’s simply Junie B. And Junie B has a problem. Someone at school has stolen her black furry mittens which were made out of lots of furry fur, and Junie B is calling 911.

Running at just over an hour plus without intermission, based on two of Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones children’s book series, Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook begins Childsplay’s 40th anniversary season.  It continues at its home base at Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe from now until October 16. During Junie B’s last visit to Childsplay in 2014, the young girl was a first-grader with a problem at Christmas, but this time the theatre steps back a year. Local playwright Allison Gregory has combined both Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook with Junie B. Jones Loves Handsome Warren giving the kindergartner not one but two valuable life lessons to ponder as she grows closer to being an “almost six year-old.”

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When writing her hugely entertaining books, author Park never stated where the Jones family lived, but fans who have closely studied the clues believe it has to be in a warm climate due to the absence of snow in any of the year-round adventures, plus no one appears to be wearing winter clothes during what would normally be the cold season.  It’s unconfirmed, but readers believe the location has to be here in Arizona. Parks may have been a New Jersey native but she lived her remaining thirty years in Phoenix.  The fans are probably right.

From the playground of her school, the ever ebullient Junie B (Kate Haas) introduces us to some of her fellow classmates, including Grace (Racquel McKenzie) who possesses Junie’s favorite type of hair (it’s “automatically curly”), and Lucille (Jamie Sandomire) who happens to be the richest girl in the school (not including tax).  Then there’s the boys; Meanie Jim (Tommy Strawser) and Ricardo (Rudy Ramirez), plus the teacher in charge of Room Nine known only as Mrs. (Debra K. Stevens who also directs).  “Her name is Mrs.” Junie explains. “She has another name, too, but I just like Mrs. And that’s all.”  Even the name tag hanging around the teacher’s neck reads simply Mrs.

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With careful attention to detail and clearly a huge amount of affection for Barbara Park’s characters, playwright Gregory has combined two individual plots and weaved them into one. Junie’s on-going dilemma of what should always be the right thing to do now requires double the effort.  Those favorite mittens of hers, the ones her Grandpa bought for no good reason – “… and that’s the best reason of all” – are missing, and no one has turned them in to the Principal’s lost and found box.  At least, not yet.  Does that mean that the pen with four different colors, the one Junie B. found on the playground yard, is now hers to keep, as in Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers, or should she hand it in so that the rightful owner can reclaim it?  Junie’s not quite sure.  After all, someone’s keeping her mittens.  Isn’t keeping the pen with the four different colors – and telling no one about it – the law of the playground? Well, maybe not.

Then there’s the new boy in town, Handsome Warren (Vinny Chavez). Junie kind of likes him and wants to make her best impression when he’s around, but Handsome Warren is not so sure about Junie, especially when she comes across as such a “nutball.” Missing mittens and a handsome new guy who thinks she’s odd?  The conflicts of kindergarten life just keep growing.

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As with Childsplay’s previous Junie B outings, the real fun is observing the approach professional adult actors have when playing five year-olds.  As before, there are no pantomime style elbow nudges or knowing winks from the players as if to let us know it’s everyone playing pretend.  The spell is never broken.  With the exception of Debra K. Stevens’ Mrs. where the teacher plays it straight, just as an authority figure in a children’s classroom trying to keep order should, there’s a broadness to the playing of the other adult roles when the actors double up.  The style supports the theme.  In the way adults comically convince as kindergartners, if children were to dress up and play the adults, they’d probably portray them as Ramirez plays the Principal or as Jamie Sandomire plays the Grouchy Typing Lady, with broad, comical gestures.  Plus, considering that everything is seen from Junie’s point of view, that’s how those adults might come across.  Katie Haas has such a gloriously fun time as Junie B and plays it with all the conviction of a confused five year-old you can’t help but play along with her.

Kate plays Junie as an enthusiast.  There’s no one particular issue for which she’s enthusiastic, she’s just fully committed to every new idea that springs to mind, or in Junie’s case, comes “out of thin hair.”  When she draws pictures with her new found color pen, one of her squiggly line renditions is described as looking like “a bowl of oatmeal by a waterfall in a tornado.”  Plus, Grace compares Junie’s drawings with those drawn by a certain famous Spanish artist. “A real Pistachio,” the young girl observes.

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When once asked about a possible movie based on her books, author Parks replied by saying she was happy leaving things as they were, on the page to feed a reader’s imagination.  It’s valid.  Film, where staging is far more literal and the illusion looks intentionally real, might erode much of the comical charm. A Childsplay production, with grownups playing the kids and doing it with such commitment, is not the same thing. Imagination and the willing suspension of disbelief is already attained by the flavor of good theatre, and both the Childsplay production team and this cast help us suspend all critical faculties at all times, and they do it so well.

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Childsplay website

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