“The World According To Me” is just the first of ten sparkling musical numbers in Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones And A Little Monkey Business, the latest entry in South Coast Rep’s Theatre For Young Audiences. Like its predecessors Imagine and The Brand New Kid, Junie B. Jones is a musical treat that will keep kids enthralled throughout its fast-moving under-ninety minutes (intermission included for snack and potty breaks).  Fortunately for any adults in attendance, Joan Cushing’s delightful book, music and lyrics, a talented sextet of triple-threat performers, and a fanciful rainbow-hued set and costumes are likely to entertain audience members of any age.

For those who haven’t read Park’s popular series of children’s books, Junie B. Jones (the B. is for Beatrice, but “I just like B. and that’s all”) is a five-year-old bundle of energy who does her daily best to “rearrange the world according to me.” (Go-getter that she is, Junie B. usually finds a way to do just that.) Mrs., her teacher, tries her utmost to keep Junie B. in her seat, but this is no easy task when, in Junie B.’s own words, “I’ve got ants in my pants!”  Junie B.’s parents clearly have their hands full with a kid like Junie B., and that’s likely to be truer than ever once their “surprise” is born a few months down the road.  Junie B. isn’t sure how to feel about this upcoming arrival. After all, a surprise ought to be a present, and not some new baby brother or sister who’s probably going to smell like P.U.” It’s only when Junie B.’s mother reassures her that the new Jones baby won’t smell like a stink bomb, and promises to buy Junie B. her very own can of air freshener if it does, that Junie B. agrees grudgingly to withhold judgment for the time being.

Junie B. Jones’ two “bestest friends” in the whole world are That Grace (it’s unclear whether That is her first name or merely a demonstrative adjective) and Lucille. Junie B. loves That Grace for her “automatically curly hair” and she’s just as crazy about Lucille despite her being “way beautifuller” than Junie B.  (That’s “cause her mom buys her beautiful dresses” and also cause Lucille gets to paint her fingernails red, which is way lovelier than Junie B.’s “color-of-spit” polish.)  The remaining Kids In Room Nine are Crybaby William and Meanie Jim, though thankfully William refrains from crying and Jim doesn’t do anything particularly mean during the show.  After all, who wants to see tears and meanness at the theater?

Junie B.’s world is one most any girl would want to live in, but it’s about to be rocked by Mrs.’s announcement that in just a week’s time, the Kids Of Room Nine are going to have their very first “Show And Tell.”  Not a problem for Lucille, who plans to show off her new princess dress—and announces her decision operetta-style in “Princess Lucille!”  That Grace, too, already knows what she’s is going to show and tell about—her new pink hightops. (Just to prove that she can run “like lightning,” she belts out “Run! Run! Run!” with Crybaby William and Meanie Jim as her Backup Boys.) Meanie Jim has a great karate uniform he can wear for Show And Tell, and Crybaby William will bring in a pet bird or maybe the furry “pet” mouse his father is trying to catch. Compared to her friends’ great ideas, what on earth can Junie B. think of to show off? (“Probably nothing,” opined a kid in Sunday matinee’s audience.)

When Junie B.’s parents remark that the baby they’re expecting is going to be a “cute little monkey,” Junie B. takes them at their word, and suddenly she’s got the bestest idea ever for Show And Tell. She’ll bring her little baby monkey brother or sister to class!

It’s obvious from the get-go that author Park and book writer Cushing have an understanding of just how children talk and think. Junie B. has learned from experience that “‘We’ll see’ is another word for ‘No,’” and she worries that the new baby will mean that she won’t be number one anymore. (Apropos, she and Mother duet “Which One Will I Be Now?”)  Children do love their grandparents, and one of Junie B.’s favorite things is putting on her Grampa’s tool belt and helping him with home repairs, which they sing about in “Fixing Things With You” and accompany with a splash-dance.

Another of Cushing’s bouncy songs is “Bestest Friends,” which features Junie B., Lucille, and That Grace doing three-part sister group harmonies, dancing the soft shoe, and showing off chorus line kicks, canes in hand.  There’s also “Words! Words! Words!”, Mrs., the Principal, and the Kids Of Room Nine’s jazzy, bluesy salute to language.

Director Casey Stangl gets bang-up performances from her adults-as-kids-and/or-adults cast, headed by the marvelously spunky Jamey Hood in the title role. Dawn-Lyen Gardner is a charmer as That Grace and Jennifer Parsons contributes a pair of warm, wise (and ever-so-quirky) adult portrayals as Mrs. and Grandma Miller.  Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper shows real versatility as a Grampa any girl would want to help fix the toilet with, and also as classmate Meanie Jim, who really isn’t all that mean—and gets laughs aplenty showing off his Kung Fu Karate Guy moves.  (“A lot of it I just made up.”) Enchanting Erika Whalen gets to be both princess-in-training Lucille and Junie B.’s expectant mom, and she displays a mean coloratura to boot.  Finally, Brian Hostenske (so memorable as The Brand New Kid) does great work in a trio of roles (including Junie B.’s school principal and her dad), but it’s as Crybaby William that Hostenske, looking like a six-year-old child blown up to adult size, truly captivates. (Just watch as poor William slowly comes to the realization that the crickets he’s brought to Show And Tell aren’t sleeping—they’re dead! The moment is priceless.)

Keith Mitchell’s rainbow-colored picture book set is a never-ending delight, as are Sara Ryung Clement’s imaginative costumes and Jaymi Lee Smith’s terrific lighting design. Sound designer Kimberly Egan mixes voices, orchestrations (by musical director Deborah Wicks La Puma), and prerecorded background tracks to perfection.

(One minor complaint.  I do wish they’d cut out a line about not wanting to sit next to the “icky kid” on the bus, since it seems to contradict the message of acceptance that The Brand New Kid tried so hard to instill.)

This was my third Theatre For Young Audiences production, and I enjoyed it every bit as much as Imagine and The Brand New Kid.  Maybe there are some grown-ups out there not willing to go back to their childhood for an hour and a half, but not this one.  I’ll venture to say I enjoyed Junie B. Jones And A Little Monkey Business as much as the kids one-tenth my age, and maybe even a bit more, since I only get to be a child on very special occasions like this one. 

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive , Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
November 8, 2009
Production stills courtesy of South Coast Repertory.

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