Not all children's shows are grippingly entertaining for grownups, but their audiences always are. Careful eavesdropping on the moppets who attend Childsplay's Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! will take you back to your own days of wonder and excitement.
"Whoa! It's her school!" exclaimed one girl, when she saw the completely darling, nostalgic, and apparently just-like-the-books Room 1 set on the stage. (As Junie B. herself points out, "'Whoa' is what we say to be supportive.") And while a mom might appreciate how near the stage her family's seats are, her son knows that "the best seats are the high-up ones," as he glimpses the alluring second balcony.
Since 1992, local author Barbara Park has written (and Denise Brunkus has evocatively illustrated) something like 29 short chapter books narrated by Junie B. Jones, who began the series as a kindergartner and may be forever marooned in first grade now (an occupational hazard of popular fictional characters). Childsplay's brought back Allison Gregory's zippy stage adaptation of Junie B.'s holiday adventures for another engagement this year (after many seasons of presenting The Velveteen Rabbit, which I never did get to see).
If you aren't already submerged in Junie B. Jones, now might be a good time to snag a few library books and get the fever before you go to the play. I felt a bit left out -- but I can now tell you that our heroine is not a girly-girl; she has friends of all kinds, including a girly-girl, boys, and a Jew; and things get scrappy enough for all tastes, especially those of primary-grade kids, for whom the books are written.
In any case, you'll be able to appreciate Childsplay's adult professional actors, who are frisky and sincere as Junie B. and her clearly differentiated classmates, as well as in the roles of the few necessary adults. We all are still six years old inside, at times, and Junie B.'s dilemmas (friendship! teasing! behaving!) are the kind that never quite leave us.
Carey Wong's set gets even cuter during the flashback sequence to the class' Columbus Day play at Parents' Night, and Room 1's creation of characters, script, and costumes, culminating in a disastrous regatta of manned, life-size paper boats, was my Act I high point. Yes, the play has two acts, and kids should bring their pocket money, because there are cool little things to buy in the lobby that totally reflect stuff that goes on in the play and also make good gifts from tiny givers with tiny budgets. (Some of the tie-ins don't make sense until after the show, unless you already know the story.)
In the end, will Junie B., who often puts her foot in it, let the spirit of giving work its magic? This production keeps most of the audience guessing until the last minute -- so I'm certainly not going to give anything away.
I do have one serious dramaturgical quibble -- "stoled" (which is corrected by teacher Mr. Scary during the play's action) is a one-syllable word, as any English-speaking kid can tell you. The rarer two-syllable emphatic variant, "stolded," includes an extra "d".
Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! continues through Friday, December 24, in the big theater at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway. Call 480-350-2822 or click here for tickets, which cost $20 to $25, with discounts for children, students, and seniors. And you might want to plan ahead, because sales are already strong.
Crip Tip of the Week: Sometimes a particular neighborhood or venue earns a reputation for being a difficult place to find parking even when walking in from the car is no trouble at all. If you're living with a mobility impairment, it might make you think twice about even going out to see a play there -- and we can't have that!
New Times called Theresa Dickerson, Phoenix Theatre's public relations manager, to find out exactly how to snag disabled parking at the theater-museum complex at Central Avenue and McDowell Road. Although some of the neighboring businesses are super-cool about sharing their parking lots, recent construction and simultaneous events in the facility's multiple venues can nevertheless make it tricky to get close to the box office and theater.
Dickerson was as happy to hear from us as any savvy businessperson would be when a loyal customer has an issue. She confirmed that PT's front-of-house staff is poised to address your needs. Once you know when you're attending, it's prudent to simply call the box office in advance for specific tips -- "We always are able to help direct you to where you can park," Dickerson says. "For large events, our whole parking lot [the one just north of the box office] is shut down for handicapped parking. If all the spots are full, call the box office [602-254-2151] and they will send someone out to help you to your seat." Good to know!
I find that I typically need to be at least 30 minutes early to a performance at PT or its Little Theatre (home of Nearly Naked Theatre and assorted other tenants) to snag a handicapped parking space -- and if they're all gone, that gives me time to call the box office for advice and assistance. Honestly, the better I prepare and the more I go out, the more I learn that most obstacles are no biggie, and I hope that you can do the same. If you have other tips for theatergoers who need accommodations, please share them in the comments.
By the way, Phoenix Theatre's mainstage seating is almost all ground-level, with ramps all the way up and down both aisles, so it's a sweet place to catch a show once you get in from the car, too -- and they sell alcohol and snacks and often feature live music on the patio. Score!