On November 25, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse will debut Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, a holiday comedy based on one of the many children's books featuring author Barbara Park's feisty, funny, and unpredictable first-grader Junie B. Jones. It's the second Junie B. title that Circa '21 has staged in the past three years, and if you attend this new show and think you recognize its star from 2009's Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business, you do: Sunshine Ramsey will again be donning Junie's dress to play a character some 25 years younger than the actress is.
The 31-year-old Ramsey has served as a member of Circa '21's performing wait staff, the Bootleggers, since 2002 (she and I worked together from 2002 to 2004), and has acted at the theatre in such family presentations as Stuart Little, Miss Nelson Is Missing, Sleeping Beauty, Winnie the Pooh, and Aesop's Dynamic Duo. (She has also appeared in the Bootleggers' four mainstage productions to date, the country-Western musical Honky Tonk Angels, and two sold-out performances of her cabaret revue, A Night of Sunshine.) Beyond her Circa '21 duties, Ramsey instructs at, and is the co-owner of, Sunshine's Performing Arts Studio & Resale Store in Rock Island and is the married mother of four-year-old Carter, and during a recent break in her schedule, she sat down to chat about the fun - and familiarity - of playing Junie B. Jones.
Did you read any of Barbara Park's books before you were cast in Circa '21's first Junie B. Jones show?
I did not. The first book I actually read from the Junie B. series was after we started rehearsals. Since the first time I did it, I've collected a bunch of them, so I've read a lot of them now. But yeah, I'd never even heard of Junie B. before that.
So your audiences were probably more familiar with Junie than you were.
Oh yeah. When I was in the first show, I did appearances at libraries, and one time I was sitting there reading the Junie B. Jones Monkey Business book, and this little girl says, "Where's your glasses?!" Junie gets glasses in the second grade. But in the show we were doing, Junie was still in first grade, so I didn't know that. So I was like, "I don't know. ... Where are your glasses?!" [Laughs.] So yeah, they knew a lot more about Junie than I did at the time. I'm hoping that I know a lot more now.
What did you think of the character when you first read the script?
"That's me." [Laughs.] As a kid, I never kept my mouth shut, and I never watched what I said - it was just whatever came out came out. It was the truth, and it was honest ... and I had no filter. I've heard from teachers that some schools use Junie's books to teach kids how not to act, but hey, I turned out okay! [Laughs.]
Did you get into trouble like Junie B. when you were young?
Oh, all the time. I specifically remember this one situation where we were out to dinner, and there was a hair in my ice cream. And I pulled it out and looked at the waitress, and said, "There's a hair in my ice cream - I think it's yours! It's the same color!" And my family was like, "Sunshine! You can't say things like that!" And I'm like, "But it's true! It's her hair!" I wasn't trying to be mean; I was just saying to her, "Hey, you want your hair back?" [Laughs.] I remember that like it was yesterday.
Did you also have a favorite stuffed animal that you took everywhere, the way Junie B. brings along her elephant Phillip Johnny Bob?
No, I actually didn't. But I had a blanket ... and I still have that blanket. I've had it since I was really little, and I still take it to bed with me every night. My husband makes fun of me because I take it when we go out of town.
What makes the role so enjoyable for you?
She's very open, and she's very fun. And she says the funniest stuff ever - I can't believe some of the stuff that comes out of this girl. In the show, she says something to her grandpa like, "Grandpa, you're not getting this. I need five dollars; you have five dollars. Boom! Do the math!" I mean, I can barely say some of the stuff she says without laughing myself. It's hilarious.
Where does the inspiration for playing a first-grader come from?
Well, I'm kind of bubbly and goofy anyway. And once I knew I was going to be playing her, and being a dance teacher for that age group, I did concentrate more on how students that age acted. But the fact is that Junie is me, and so I don't really have to "act." All I have to do is think back to what I was like at that age, and be myself.
What is it like when kids come up to you for autographs after the show?
They treat me like Junie B. It's not like they're all star-struck and shy. It's more like, "Hey, I know this girl! I read about her all the time!" It's like I'm one of their friends. They'll just come up and say things like, "Oh my gosh, that was so funny when you called that guy a big dumb bunny!"
If Junie B. was your age now, what do you think she'd be doing?
She'd probably be performing, or she'd be a public speaker. Because she's not afraid to talk, and it seems like she wants the attention on her all the time, whether she really knows that or not. She's the loudest one in the room, and she wants all eyes on her. So yeah, either on stage performing or public speaking. [But] if she was a politician, she'd get in a lot of trouble.
The Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells runs on scheduled mornings and afternoons from Friday, November 25, through Saturday, December 31, and on the evening of Monday, December 5. For information, call (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visit Circa21.com.