For those unfamiliar, a quick primer: Junie B. Jones is a first grader who appears in a series of children’s books written by one-time Phoenix resident Barabara Park, all written from Junie’s perspective. The books as well as the character are hugely popular among children, perhaps because so many identify with Junie’s playful and mischievous classroom nature.
Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! is taken from the Christmas adventure first-grader short story where Junie (Kate Haas) draws a name out of the hat for a classroom secret Santa and it’s for the one person she really doesn’t like; her classroom rival and champion of the tattletales, May (Kaleena Newman). “I believe I’ll pass on that,” says Junie after reading May’s name on the slip. “I don’t like May,” Junie later announces. “She keeps coming to school,” then adds: “Everyday.”
Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you; in drama class when you give a child a playful scenario to express an idea that includes the participation of other children, they’ll invariably ad-lib the whole thing in a pretend classroom. At this early stage, outside of family life, it’s the one setting they know. Junie B. Jones is set in the classroom where everything is told from Junie’s point of view to the point where she regularly turns to the audience and shares a thought or two. “Winter break,” she confides, “Is school-talk for ‘I gotta get out of this place,’ let me tell you.” Isn’t that how the average first-grader thinks? Exactly. No wonder they love Junie B. Jones.
What makes Childsplay so magical, even essential, is the troupe’s commitment to quality and its high-production values. For several valley children, seeing a play and fostering an interest in performance will happen here, so how wonderful is it that their introduction to live theatre will be watching a show where the approach and dedication to the craft is as complete and as thorough as any adult production. There are no corners cut, and no playing down to its audience.
With the exception of teacher Mr. Scary (Dwayne Hartford) and Mr. Toot (Jon Gentry) all other characters are first-graders. What becomes so laugh-out-loud funny is how thoroughly convincing the cast are when playing six or seven year olds. Children know that these actors they’re watching are adults, yet disbelief is fully suspended. There are no knowing winks letting us know this is all really pretend – Childsplay doesn’t operate like that – these actors never break character. Respect for its audience is paramount which is why respect for Childsplay should be equally so.
The fact that the Junie B. series was included in the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned or Challenged Books up until 2009 – evidently there are those who consider Junie a bad role model – was something the late author is said to have considered a badge of honor. Having now met Junie B. Jones through this wonderfully humorous seasonal production from Childsplay at Tempe Center for the Arts, I’m quite sure the young girl would have considered the ban in the same way her creator did: when your name is included on a list alongside Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, it’s time to celebrate. Ready? All together now: Jingle Bells, Batmans Smells, Robin laid an egg…
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for Childsplay website.