I’m not the target audience for this show, and unlike Shrek and similar fare, Junie B. Jones, the Musical is children’s media that’s focused on entertaining children, given it’s based on the beloved children’s book series by Barbara Park. But while the book and lyrics will appeal to young children, the actors clearly know they are playing to a room of kids with their parents — and that’s why this show works. Junie B. Jones, the Musical at the Adventure Theatre Musical Theatre Center (ATMTC) works for audiences older than six because of its actors’ sheer dedication to their roles. It’s a genuine joy to watch — even if the writing isn’t the best — because you know that this drama is exactly what delights and enchants the young minds of its characters and core audience. These adult actors are extremely talented singers and physical comedians, who are fully committed to boot. And it’s thanks to their commitment that even adults can see a little bit of themselves in these 6-foot-tall six-year-olds.
Junie B. Jones is an opinionated first-grader who sticks up for herself and fears no drama. The version of her in this musical is far more likable and more of a role model than in the book version. I found a PDF of the first book after seeing this show, and gosh, I can understand why I wasn’t allowed to read these books. She’s remarkably mean-spirited, incendiary, loud-mouthed over substanceless claims of wrongdoing against her, and uncooperative with her teachers, but not in an endearing Ramona the Pest sort of way. But the musical’s Junie B. is an innocent victim and a joyous presence of creativity, optimism, and even feminine expression, even if she can be a troublemaker. Caroline Graham in the title role is a joy to watch, costumed perfectly by Costume Designer Paris Francesca in a skirt decorated with stars, pink rolled-up socks, a huge red wig, huge purple glasses, and Junie B. Jones’ trademark gigantic bow. The college-aged Graham has conquered a first-grader’s physicality, capturing a stiffness and lack of honed physical control of her limbs while also sporting a bold vibrato and enchanting, scene-stealing stage presence.
Director and Choreographer Ashleigh King has invested profound love and care into this production. Each musical number boasts Hairspray-esque energy in its recorded soundtrack reflected in the smiling faces and bouncing energy of the actors and their fluid choreography. Jimmy Bartlebaugh shines as Junie B.’s best friend Herb and the briefly-appearing but highly memorable comic relief Chenille, frequently stealing the show with endearing comedy. Jordan Essex also shows off his toolbelt of comedic chops, offering relatable humor to adults managing kids as Junie B.’s teacher, Mr. Scary, and her Dad. These actors push their performance skills to the limit as they say the silliest things and die on the hills of the most meaningless opinions, and in doing so bring genuine belly laughs to the adults in the room.
It doesn’t take long for adult theatergoers to be immediately impressed by this show. The stage’s immersive set, designed by Set Designer Joshua Sticklin, immediately stuns upon entry into the theater — the proscenium and stage are utterly engulfed with doodles and the visual texture of a composition book, with pink metallic streamers covering the entrances and exits to the stage. Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin aims multicolored lights at the stage and especially the streamers, where the lights’ reflections and shine turn the theater into a brilliant first-grade girl’s Technicolor fantasyland.
Any weaknesses in the show seem to come from the given book and lyrics. The songs aren’t especially interesting or unique-sounding, at least from an adult perspective — the kids around me were having a blast — but when the songs are strong it’s thanks to funny lyrics or the big moment in Junie B.’s life that they represent — like ”Lucille, Camille, Chenille” and “Now I See,” respectively. But when a song’s lyrics or tune are weak, the performances actively make up for it in entertainment value.
These characters represent archetypes that we still recognize as adults, and the performances in this production make them sing. We all know a hyperactive opinionated extrovert, a know-it-all mean girl, a quirky loyal best friend, someone who makes up problems to get attention, and a long-suffering managerial type. Older viewers of this children’s theater show will see themselves and their lives in the on-stage misadventures of these adults dressed as six-year-olds. We really have been acting the same way our whole lives.
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes with no intermission.
Junie B. Jones, the Musical plays through March 30, 2024, at Adventure Theatre MTC (ATMTC), 7300 MacArthur Blvd, Glen Echo, MD. Showtimes are Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays (and several Wednesdays and Thursdays) at 11 AM, and weekends at 11 AM and 2 PM. See the schedule to plan and purchase tickets. Tickets (general admission, all ages, $25) are available online or by calling the box office at 301-634-2270.
COVID Safety: mask optional.
Junie B. Jones, the Musical
Adapted from the JUNIE B. JONES series by Barbara Park
Book and Lyrics by Marcy Heisler
Music by Zina Goldrich
Directed by Ashleigh King