Seattle Review: Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business!
***** broadwayworld.com pick *****
Based on the popular books of Barbara Parks, Joan Cushing's Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business! proves that musicals for children can live on the same level as adult fare. Witty, bright, dark, and hilarious, Cushing has crafted a work that can easily be enjoyed by all ages. Seattle Children's Theatre ends their great season with one of the best local productions of a musical in years. Every element is executed with delicious vibrancy.
Our heroine is a feisty kindergartner anxious for attention. When Junie discovers her Mother is pregnant, she fears a life in the shadows. As the deadline for show-and-tell looms, Junie struggles to find the perfect object to impress her friends. She takes her Grandma's declaration that the newborn baby is "a little monkey" literally, and begins to take bribes for the first look at her simian brother. Beneath this quirky plot are themes about identity, change, and integrity that are sure to resonate with everyone.
Cushing perfectly captures the energy and style of Parks' characters. She is able to counter the bombastic moments with quietly poignant scenes and songs. Cushing presents the surface of each situation before digging in for the truth. Her score is top notch, featuring fiendishly witty lyrics on top of catchy music. The opening number "The World According to Me!" easily introduces us to everyone quickly and fluidly.
Though Cushing has created a strong work, it is the direction of David Bennett that makes this production sparkle like a fine diamond. His knack for detail is present throughout as he wrings every ounce of humor and poignancy from Cushing's
Kathryn Van Meter's boisterous choreography establishes character and advances the action easily. The musical staging evolves seamlessly from the book scenes. "Fixing Things with You" finds Junie and Grampa performing a soft-shoe underneath a gigantic, overflowing pink toilet. "I've Got a Monkey Brother!" is a nightmarish declaration that joyfully bleeds into the audience. The most delightful moment comes in the big 11'Oclock number "Words! Words! Words!", which turns into a crazy swing dance. In a town full of mechanical choreography, Van Meter's work stands unrivaled.
An amazing dramatic actress, Liz McCarthy turns into a full-fledged musical comedy star as Junie B. Jones. She throws herself wholeheartedly into the part, creating a wide-eyed youngster eager to be noticed. McCarthy charms her way through the evening, never denying Junie's antagonistic tendencies. Her reading of "Which Number Will I Be?" is quite poignant. She easily gives the best musical turn in recent memory.
Lisa Estridge and Leslie Law are at their impressive best as Junie's girlfriends. Estridge fills That Grace with feisty vulnerability. She perfectly captures the constant childhood struggle for acceptance,. Estridge brings the house down with an amazing "Run! Run! Run!. Law is positively perfect as the narcissistic Lucile. She fills her performance with intricate choices that are hilarious and appropriate. Her big number "Princess Lucille!" is a maniacal masterpiece. Law is nearly unrecognizable in her other role as Junie's Mother. She is able to balance her larger than life child with a realistically concerned parent. McCarthy, Estridge, and Law also thrill in their infectious trio "Bestest Friends!".
The remaining ensemble bring endless dimension to their various roles. Peter A. Jacobs plays a absurd bully and Junie's Grampa with equal conviction. He too is able to create unique representations of each character that never seem like senseless doubling. Stephen Hando fills out his three roles nicely, and is best as the socially awkward Crybaby William. Laura Kenny is great in her two grownup roles as teacher and Grandma. Her dry wit is appropriately placed. The entire company is on the same page. They are a pleasure to watch.
Edie Whitsett's imaginative set is a remarkable achievement. Full of tricks and surprises, this bright creation firmly plants the production in a void between reality and fantasy. Whitsett's functional design allows Bennett and Van Meter to run wild. A gigantic rolling red ladder is used throughout to create some of the best moments to be found. Spinning walls and windows add appropriate spectacle to each musical number. The aforementioned gigantic pink toilet is positively hysterical. Karen Ledger's meticulous costumes and Michael Welborn's fanciful lighting are also impressive.
It is hard to imagine a musical as flawless as Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business!. Children will love the bright colors, the silly humor, and the buoyant music. Adults will find guilty pleasure in this irresistible portrait of the cruelty and confusion of childhood. Bennett is easily able to make this story accessible for both genders. This truly outstanding musical comedy proves that great children's theatre can transcend age and sex. This amazing show is not to be missed.
Junie B. Jones & a Little Monkey Business! runs through June 18th at
Top: Lisa Estridge as That Grace, Peter A. Jacobs as Meanie Jim, Liz McCarthy as Junie, Stephen Hando as Crybaby William, Leslie Law as Lucille, and Laura Kenny as Mrs. in "I've Got a Monkey Brother!"
Bottom: Liz McCarthy as Junie and Peter A. Jacobs as Grampa
All Photos by Chris Bennion