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HIGHLY RECOMMENDED A Beloved Children’s Book Comes to Life

Highly Recommended

Oh joy! Oh rapture! The Junie B. Jones series of books, by Barbara Park, is onstage for the Summer in Lincolnshire in an absolutely bouncy, high-spirited musical adaptation. It was written for Theatreworks by Deerfield native, lyricist/book writer Marcy Heisler, and her partner, composer Zina Goldrich. This is definitely a show aimed at youngsters, based upon five of Park’s books; but adults will roar with laughter at the recognizable situations, the witty dialogue and the comical song lyrics that speak to their own experiences. Throughout the 60-minute play, Junie B. and her colorful world bursts to irrepressible life.

In 1992, the late Barbara Park began writing a series of beginning readers that realistically tapped into the concerns and anxieties of younger children. Her streak of popular books began with Junie B. Jones entering kindergarten. Then later, as Ms. Park continued writing her crowd-pleasing novelettes, she took her heroine to first grade, where this musical is set. For early elementary age children, Ms. Park’s 27 short stories realistically and comically explored every possible consideration and concern that kids, ages five through eight, have to face. They include the doubts and challenges inherent in starting the school year: beginning a new grade; getting to know an unfamiliar teacher; coping with jealousy; making new friends; dealing with bullies; facing the trauma of school lunches; discovering the need for glasses; and struggling through all sorts of disappointment. The play is episodic, with the sassy little girl facing the kinds of problems that are so familiar to school-age kids

As the new school year begins, Junie B.’s mother anticipates her daughter’s apprehension and presents her with a diary. Upon the beautifully blank pages, the little girl is excited to record all her daily adventures and unrevealed thoughts in her notebook. She entitles her chronicle the “Top Secret Journal of Personal Beeswax.”

All kinds of adventures await the little girl on the first day of school. On the bus, Junie B. is shunned by her self-centered former kindergarten best friend, Lucille. She makes a new buddy in fellow classmate Herbert, later deciding that they will eventually marry each other. Junie B. finds her new teacher, ironically named Mr. Scary, to actually be a kind, caring man. When Junie B. has trouble reading the words on the chalkboard, she learns that she needs glasses. Then the little girl is disappointed when she discovers that first-graders don’t get cookie-and-milk breaks, like they did in kindergarten. However, she makes friends with the lunch lady, Mrs. Gutzman, who teaches Junie B. how to be a cafeteria helper.

This jubilant musical stars the effervescent, multitalented (the actress even juggles!) Elizabeth Telford as Junie B. Jones. This gifted Thespian bursts with charisma and floods the stage with her boundless, contagious enthusiasm. Ms. Telford creates a believable little girl who makes every situation an adventure of discovery. In Ms. Telford’s hands, this feisty, lovable, strong-willed Junie B. spends her day making friends and learning how to turn every problem into a positive experience.

The supporting cast is, as always the case in Marriot’s theatre for young audiences, some of Chicago’s finest triple threats. Garrett Lutz is sweet and sincere as Herb; Allison Sill makes a great hoity-toity first-grader, as Lucille; and Adam LaSalle brings empathy and understanding to both the roles of Daddy and Mr. Scary. The magnificently talented Rashada Dawan is terrific in several roles, such as Mom, young Camille and the lunch lady, Mrs. Gutzman; Lydia Burke is hilarious as know-it-all student, May, as well as Camille’s sidekick, Chenille.

But the real breakout star of this production is wacky and wonderful Jackson Evans. He plays the delightfully dorky, allergy-plagued Sheldon, the first grade nerd. Not particularly talented at kickball, Sheldon decides to become the star of the school field day by creating his own halftime show. When Junie B. injures her toe, he even drafts his benched classmate into the pageantry by letting her play woodblock, while Sheldon hilariously serenades the athletes on cymbals. It’s one of the funniest moments in the show.

The spunk, spirit, comic guidance and groovy dance moves can all be attributed to Johanna McKenzie Miller, a gifted performer who’s talents are usually enjoyed on the stage. In this wonderful arena production, she brings her expertise, experience and a sharp eye to direct and choreograph this charming musical comedy, bringing all these popular characters to life. Musically directed by Ellen Morris, and costumed with whimsy by Amanda Vander Byl, Ms. Miller has directed a production that’s truly as clever and captivating for adults, as it is for children. But young kids will laugh, clap along and simply enjoy seeing their favorite books come to life before their eyes. Don’t miss this unbelievable musical, the perfect summer confection for all ages.