On the program cover for the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse’s new family musical, right under the names of show creators Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, you’ll find this brief synopsis: “A delightful adaptation of four of Barbara Park’s best-selling books.” The built-in praise seemed a tad presumptuous: Its delightfulness wasn’t (hopefully) going to be our opinion, but was rather a fact? Well ... yeah. With its hugely endearing ensemble and peppy, cheerfully sung songs, Junie B. Jones: The Musical is almost inarguably entertaining, and would likely have been an hour of radiant, capitalized Sunshine even if that weren’t also the first name of its gifted leading performer.
Blessedly, though, it is. Returning to the role she previously portrayed in 2009’s Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business and 2011’s Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Sunshine Ramsey again dons her red wig and bossy-pants attitude to play author Park’s adorably tyrannical heroine, and one can only pray she’ll continue to until the inevitable staging of Junie B. & Her Bright Shiny Walker. It takes supreme skill to make someone you’d cower from in real life into someone you can’t get enough of on-stage, and Ramsey and director Kimberly Furness (who also helmed the 2009 and 2011 shows) continue to prove sensationally smart about just how much obnoxiousness their title character can get away with without turning into a royal pain.
This Junie shouts and pouts and stomps and is openly dismissive toward both friends and authority figures. (“Kindly move along,” she says when Brad Hauskins’ teacher Mr. Scary has the nerve to ask for Junie’s assignment.) Yet, incredibly, she’s never a pill. Ramsey’s exemplary comic timing, and the apparent ease with which she accesses her inner six-year-old, are so winning that you actually enjoy Junie most when she’s at her brattiest, and Furness keeps finding clever ways to differentiate the scale of the girl’s tantrums and grievances. (In the funniest one, Junie initiates a comically threatening, High Noon-esque showdown with Janos Horvath’s Herbert over possession of the boy’s cafeteria cookie.)
Anyone familiar with Ramsey’s past Junie performances should know to expect another terrific one here, and should also know to expect less of a plot than a series of mildly interconnected sketches, the JBJ:TM ones involving its lead’s gradual adjustment to first grade. These mini-plots (Junie gets glasses, Junie gets a lunchbox) are perfectly serviceable, and a few, especially Junie’s and Herbert’s tentative school-bus bonding, are quite touching. Despite the program’s insistence, however, Heisler’s and Goldrich’s adaptation is less delightful than the overall show. Not all of the vignettes feel satisfyingly resolved – Junie loses her best friend Lucille with more of a shrug than this painful, relatable grade-school conflict deserves – and about half of the dozen or so momentum-stalling blackout segues were unnecessary. The individual scenes and musical numbers, though, are consistently sprightly and buoyant – adjectives that certainly also apply to Furness’ cast.
In addition to hoping for more Junies starring Ramsey, I’d be totally on-board with numerous spin-offs starring Chris Galván as Junie’s lactose-intolerant, hypochondriacal classmate Sheldon, a hilarious Brit-twit-in-training who elicited, deservedly, the loudest, most sustained laughs from April 19’s largely grade-school crowd. (Nearby adults and I were laughing just as hard.) Galván also portrays Junie’s warmhearted dad opposite the effervescent Brooke Schelly’s mom, delivering a charming dual juggling act in the process, while previous Junie-musical veterans Horvath and Hauksins bookend their wittily conceived male characters with endearingly silly drag acts – the former as a denim-jacketed twin, the latter as a curt German lunch lady with a mustache. (It’s that kind of show.)
I wish the ever-divine Erin Churchill had more to do as the prissy-in-pink Lucille, and wish the spirited Nicholas Munson and Kirsten Sindelar were given really anything to do as their combined quartet of schoolkids. But underused or not, everyone in Junie B. Jones: The Musical appears to be having a good, goofy time – even if, from the start, the audience appeared to be having a better one. Before Tuesday’s show officially began, Circa ’21 Bootlegger Jennifer Diab warmed up the kids with a “If You’re Happy & You Know It” sing-along. They energetically clapped their hands, stomped their feet, and shouted, “Hooray!” But I’m thinking their responses might’ve been even more animated had the song come at the show’s end, when it was joyously evident that everyone in that crowd was happy, and everybody knew it.
Junie B. Jones: The Musical runs at the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through May 21, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.