It’s possible my soft spot for children’s theatre has gotten out of hand.
Honestly, we ought to have children review Theatre for Young Audiences. After all, it’s right there in the title: it’s for young audiences, not me, the childless theatre critic in the back of the house. True, in my other life I’m a children’s librarian, which I think puts me in a decent position to judge adaptations of children’s books, and I still have some connection to my six-year-old self, who devoured Barbara Parks’ Junie B. Jones book series with a single-minded devotion. But I’m not six now, and grown-up me kept wincing in pain over the stagecraft of Junie B. Jones the Musical at Citadel Theatre.
Let’s get into it.
From the minute Jessica Surprenant, who plays Junie B. Jones, wheeled onto the stage on her light-up scooter, all I could see was the giant floppy purple bow on her head—and boy, did it flop. Every time Surprenant moved (which was often, considering the energetic nature of the lead), the bow fell forward or backward distractingly, and I groaned internally. It’s going to do that the whole show, isn’t it? I thought. It did.
Matters didn’t improve when the music started. While the score by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich is perfectly enjoyable, even downright catchy, the instrumentals are also recorded and played through tinny house speakers like it’s karaoke night at your favorite dive bar. The actors all have decent singing voices, but it’s hard to take much joy out of that when it’s coupled with distractingly out-of-sync choreography; the dancing reminded me far too much of my days in high school show choir.
The show, which strings together plots from a number of Junie B. books, including Junie B. Jones: First Grader (at Last!), Boss of Lunch, and One-Man Band, has more characters than actors, which is not uncommon or even problematic most of the time, but here the transitions and costume changes are obnoxiously obvious; one student kept entering the classroom mid-scene for no discernable reason (other than the evident logistical one of switching outfits and wigs) and at one point, teacher Mr. Scary just…walks out of his classroom of first graders unannounced, leaving them unsupervised so he can transform into Junie B.’s father.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, I thought at one point. Surely children don’t care about things like awkward costume changes or flubbed light cues (Surprenant kept starting her monologues in the dark, which drove me crazy). But no sooner had I thought this than the cast starting singing about Junie B.’s new purple glasses (which looked red from the audience), and a child near me said aloud “those aren’t purple glasses.” Clearly I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Not to mention there wasn’t much laughter from the audience throughout, despite the original books being downright hilarious. Just because a show is for children doesn’t mean it can slack on quality.
If the show has one redeeming quality, it’s the set by Eric Luchen, which features bright colors and patterns reminiscent of the binding of the original books. It’s just plain fun to look at. Citadel Theatre has produced several shows for adults that I’ve liked, but this branch into children’s theatre is a flop.
Note: I worked briefly with actor Brian M. Kulaga, who plays Mr. Scary/Daddy, at Compass Creative Dramatics.
Location: Gorton Community Center, 400 E Illinois Rd. Lake Forest IL
(NOTE – This is NOT Citadel’s main venue at 300 S. Waukegan Rd.)
Dates: Saturday, February 9 – Sunday, February 17, 2019
Times: Saturdays and Sundays at 11 am and 2 pm
Tickets: All seats $15. Tickets available online at the Citadel Theatre website or by phone at 847-735-8554, ext. 1
All photos by Citadel Theatre.