Friday, January 22, 2016

Junie B. Jones at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan. 22, 2016
The cast of Junie B. Jones with Junie (Sammy Cattin) in the center with blue skirt. Photo credit: Dennis Kurtz

The cast of Junie B. Jones with teacher Mr. Scary (Blake York). Photo credit: Dennis Kurtz
Watching TMP Family Theater’s Junie B. Jones was a joyful experience. This upbeat musical is based on the popular children's book series by Barbara Park. And it’s not just for children. My wife and I don’t have any young children, and we enjoyed it as much as many musical comedies for grownups. It’s upbeat and hilarious, and the music really rocks.
Sammy Cattin in the lead role is marvelous. A dynamo of energy at four-feet-ten, Cattin bursts on stage like a rocket. She has athletic moves and an expressive face that vacillates instantly from expressing outrageous optimism to crushing defeat, from childish petulance back to delight. And she sings wonderfully. Her previous stage experience includes playing Liesl Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Ado Annie in Oklahoma. According to the program, she is currently applying to Cornish College of the Arts “to continue her pursuit in theater.” I suspect she will soon be wowing them as she did us.
The rest of the cast is praiseworthy as well. Francesca Guecia as Junie’s sometimes nemesis, Lucille is captivating to watch. Sam Tebb as Junie’s new best friend – too young, to be a boyfriend but her boy friend nevertheless – is highly likeable and sings nicely. Isaiah Parker in the double roles of Sheldon and Chenille has some of the best comedic expressions you’re likely to see on stage anytime soon. The second scene in which Parker and Stephen Nishida in the double roles of José and Camille come out dressed as girls is comic gold. Their expressions are precious.
Blake York does a yeoman’s duty in the many roles of Junie’s father; her teacher, Mr. Scary; the no-nonsense bus driver; and the hilarious cafeteria lady Gladys Gutzman. (It would have been logical for Tasha Smith, playing the only other adult female characters, to play the part of Gladys Gutzman, but casting York was a brilliant move, which I assume can be credited to director and choreographer Lexi Barnett. Also worth of praise are Rae Trotter as Tattletale May and Paddington Barnett as Tickle.
The story begins with Junie, who insists of using the middle initial “B” when saying her name, getting ready for the first day of first grade. She can barely contain her excitement because she is going to get to spend a whole school year sitting next to her best friend from kindergarten, Lucille. But she is crushed when Lucille announces that she has dropped her in favor of her new best friends Chenille and Camille  ̶  twins whom she apparently loves because their names rhyme, which spurs a great be-bop song by Lucille, Chenille and Camille, much to Junie’s dejection.
Following are a series of high hopes and crushing defeats for Junie, who gets sad but never gives up and never loses hope.
I love the simple set by Bruce Haasl, consisting primarily of Junie B’s giant “Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal” with pages that open to create various background scenes, wonderfully painted in a childlike style by Haasl. Beyond the big journal there are no set pieces or props except for chairs and desks the actors move about to create seats on the bus and at school.
It is a short, laugh-filled play, approximately an hour and 15 minutes including an intermission.
Junie B. Jones purple glasses are on sale in the lobby for $5.
Go see it as soon as you can, no matter your age and no matter if you have children or not. I promise you, you’ll be glad you did.
TMP Family Theater at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Jan. 23 and 2 p.m., Jan. 24, 7116 6th Ave, Tacoma, WA 98406, 253.565.6867.

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