Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!
Six-year-old Junie B. Jones is excited for the upcoming Holiday Sing Along and Secret Santa gift exchange with her fellow first grade class, but her arch nemesis, the tattletale May, seems to always ruin everything. When Junie B. draws May's name in the Secret Santa gift exchange it looks like Junie B. will finally be able to teach May a lesson with her less than desirable choice of a gift for May. Based on the series of close to thirty books first book published in 1992 by long time Phoenix resident Barbara Park, the adaptation by Allison Gregory not only focuses on the holiday events at the school but also includes a hilarious flashback to their recent Columbus Day Pageant that fleshes the play out and makes it even more funny and charming.
Director David Saar has found an exceptional cast, made up of many Childsplay regulars, to bring these six year olds to vivid life. There isn't a misstep in the entire group, as they portray their characters with adept skill. As Junie B. Jones, Kate Haas is appropriately rambunctious, feisty, and a bit selfish, all traits any child can easily relate to. She infuses Junie B. with a sense of excitement that is contagious yet also allows us to see the understanding and knowledge she gainsimportant to the lessons in the play. Kaleena Newman brings a nice, even tone to May which doesn't overtly make her into a complete antagonist. As the rest of the kids in the cast, Yolanda London, Thomas Strawser, Tyler Eglen, and Carlos A. Lara all bring appropriate childlike mannerisms, expressions, and traits to their characters. While they are all great, London is especially impressive as the young girl who constantly has to remind people how wealthy her family is, and Strawser is a gem as the germaphobe Sheldon. Dwayne Hartford brings a level-headedness to the kids' teacher Mr. Scary, and Jon Gentry has two small cameo parts which he delivers with ease.
With a combination of colorful, character specific costumes from Kish Finnegan, excellent wig designs from Katie Peck, and each actor using a childlike, though not cartoonish, voice, you get a realistic sense that there is a group of first graders on stage. Carey Wong's set design is colorful and effective and Saar's direction ensures the piece hits all the right comic notes but also isn't too preachy in teaching the lessons of the story. Robertson Witmer's sound design includes a few funny bodily function noises that are used to great effect.
Full of humor and vivid characters, Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! is a hilarious, charming, touching, endearing, and warm holiday comedy that is a nice change from all of the Christmas Carol's and other standard holiday offerings one usually has to choose from at this time of the year. Childsplay has delivered yet another winning production for children of all ages.
Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells at Childsplay runs through December 28th, 2014, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0).
Written by Allison Gregory and adapted from the book by Barbara Park
Directed by David Saar