I'm not sure where Barbara Park got the inspiration for her literary heroine Junie B. Jones, the adorable kindergarten heroine/hellion of the author's series of wildly popular children's books. But after seeing the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's presentation of Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business, I have a pretty firm theory: Park swiped the characterization from kindergarten-era home movies taken of actress Sunshine Ramsey.
This isn't to suggest that the performer was once the pint-sized tyrant and attention hog she plays in Circa '21's latest family musical. Yet through the course of her hilarious, ingenious portrayal, Ramsey burrows so deeply into an energetic youth's active imagination, unconscious silliness, and unquenchable joie de vivre that it's almost as though she's been playing the role since birth; this is casting that's frighteningly close to perfect. For years, I've been praying for someone to cast Ramsey - slight in stature, and possessing a Broadway-belter voice and expert comic timing - as Sally in a production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Junie B. Jones, though, proves an even more inspiring vehicle, as it allows her to be on stage all the time; more is frequently less, but in Ramsey's case, it's most definitely more.
There isn't a whole lot of plot in director Kimberly Furness' presentation of Joan Cushing's show: The bossy, youthfully sardonic Junie goes to kindergarten ("the afternoon kind"), plays with friends, bullies boys, helps grandpa fix the toilet. (In the main storyline, she mistakenly presumes that her newborn baby brother, described by her grandma as a "cute little monkey," is an actual monkey, and makes plans to display him during show-and-tell.) But the show's mild, friendly aimlessness leads to scenes of incredible charm - some of its best numbers may have felt like mere filler in a musical with a more structured narrative - and besides, given Ramsey's buoyancy in the lead, you don't want plot from Junie B. Jones. You want spirit and attitude and laughs, all of which she provides in spades.
Detailing the externals of a hyperactive five-year-old to a T, Ramsey races about the stage and climbs on the furniture, and she delivers her dialogue in speedy bursts, as though the words were tumbling out of her mouth faster than her ability to keep up with them. (This Junie has no censor, and the show's most unexpectedly hysterical moment comes when she demands of her grandma, "Hey, Helen! I want some answers here!") Yet as enjoyable as it is, the routine might've eventually grown tiresome if the actress didn't find so many inventive ways to keep it fresh.
Ramsey and Furness continually deliver lovely, offhanded moments that feel just right for the character - when her mother kisses Junie good night, the little girl instinctively lifts up her stuffed elephant, Phillip Johnny Bob, so he can get a kiss, too - and while she's frequently a terror, it's clear that Junie's excitability also comes from a place of genuine goodness and curiosity; she's as elated about assisting with plumbing problems as she is about procuring her best friend's high tops. For all her mania, this Junie is a believable five-year-old. (She's also a believable tormentor. When she snarls, "I hate that guy" in reference to a classmate, you know she means it.) The only time Ramsey stumbles is in Junie B. Jones' very last scene, when Junie finally holds her brother and jerks him around with such intensity that I feared the infant (doll) would get whiplash; it would've been nice, here, to see some more delicate shadings in the character. But this is still beautiful work, and Ramsey is given exceptional support across the board.
Antoinette Holman is unfailingly sweet (and a lively song-and-dance presence) as best pal Grace, and Molly Laurel, who also plays Junie's mom, is a divine comedienne in her role as the prissy Lucille; her daffy, distracted readings suggest that Lucille's body is present while her mind is off somewhere in a hazy world of pink. Nicole Savitt has, and provides, snippy fun as Junie's grandma and her short-tempered teacher - amusingly, she finds Lucille more irritating than Junie - and Travis Smith, triple-cast as Junie's dad, principal, and classmate William, offers a trio of lightly comedic treats. (He's especially good when his kindergartner furiously shakes a jar of deceased crickets in the hopes of waking them up.) Janos Horvath, meanwhile, brings understated grace to his Grandpa Miller, and is absolutely priceless as the child Junie refers to as Big Dumb Jim. It's hard to determine which is funnier: Horvath's demented joy when acting out a goofball "kung fu karate guy," or Horvath's blond hairpiece, which makes him resemble a contentedly empty-headed surfer dude. (With all due respect, I'm going with the toupée; Greg Hilatt's wigs and costumes are children's-show heaven throughout.)
With fantastically entertaining and clever choreography by Andrea Moore (I particularly loved the employment of Swan Lake steps during Lucille's number), and gags to get both adults and their child chaperones giggling (running in slow motion to the Chariots of Fire theme, I'm starting to think, will never not be funny), Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business is first-rate stuff, and even boasts one of the strongest scores I've yet heard in a Circa '21 family show.
Beginning with the "The World According to Me" opener, Cushing's songs (music-directed by Sue Williams) are continually more harmonically and lyrically challenging than you expect, and are insanely catchy to boot; the fixing-the-toilet tune wouldn't have been out of place on Free to Be ... You and Me, while the one devoted to phrases such as "in a pickle" and "out on a limb" feels like something accidentally (and unfortunately) dropped from Schoolhouse Rock. As for the "Bestest Friends" number, not only did Ramsey, Holman, and Laurel perform in joyful three-part harmony, they elicited a wonderfully spontaneous response from Tuesday morning's crowd. How heartening to see that even the youngest children know you always applaud a kick line.
Tickets are still available for the April 19, May 3, May 16, and May 17 performances of Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business. For information and reservations, call (309)786-7733, extension 2, or visit Circa21.com.