Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Theater review: Dallas Children’s Theater cranks up the holiday howls in funny Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!
The whole family -- even teens -- will enjoy this festive show.
DALLAS The Dallas Children's Theater's production of Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! is a fun, family-friendly play about a young first grader. Junie B, a spunky girl in a class full of unique characters, who always seems to bump heads with the tattletale, May, in class. Throughout the play, the two girls’ rivalry continues to grow, landing them into trouble at school with their teacher, Mr. Scary, thus leaving them on less than polite terms with one another. However, when Junie B. pulls May’s name as her Secret Santa, she is faced with an important decision. How would she teach May a lesson for being on her own “naughty” list?
The mood and atmosphere of the production gracefully began as a single light illuminates the energetic Junie B. Jones, played by actress Mary McElree. Junie B. speaks directly to the audience as she is writing in her journal, detailing her school experiences. Actress McElree gave a well-rounded performance. She matched the youthful energy that a spunky first grader would have through her quirky movements and youthful, earnest reactions. It was always a pleasure to watch the escalating arguments and awkward interactions between Junie B. Jones and May, played by Shelbie Mac. Both McElree’s and Mac’s on-stage chemistry made them the most entertaining of onstage rivals. The pairs’ comedic timing provided much room for laughter for the audience. Come prepared to laugh! At the start of the show a little argument turns into a big situation when Junie reacts to May ripping out a piece of her journal by stretching out the sleeve of May’s favorite sweater.
The timing of the entire altercation was spot on. Junie B. dramatically tugs on May’s sweater and ends up stretching it way beyond May’s finger tips. The on-stage chemistry and comfort was seemingly aided by the fact that the two actresses are sisters in real life. This fact was initially unknown by Director Nancy Schaeffer prior to auditions. The decision to cast this duo positively contributed to the momentum and energy of the show.
At one point in this holiday comedy, Junie and her classmates are asked to perform a historical play about how Christopher Columbus discovered America. On the night of the Columbus play you watch as their play as all seems to go on as planned. However, the tension between Junie and May causes a reckless battle of prides. Chaos engulfs the school play and the innocent production falls apart. The disasters domino one after another in slap-stick comedic style. Scott Zenreich, who plays Sheldon, starts squirming around in the ocean, causing an immediate eruption of laughter from my fellow audience members. The unfortunate series of events in the school play was a strong moment where this cast’s comedic timing shone through.
Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! had a wonderful sense of ensemble between the classmates and teacher. Each character was vastly unique. The eccentric Lucille, played by Anastasia Munoz, curtsies and poses, as she would never let her classmates forget how rich she was. The class’s first grade teacher, Mr. Scary, played by Karl Schaeffer, did a wonderful job of maintaining the constant adult figure throughout the play. He had a great way of stepping between a completely animated self and a calmer but authoritative figure. The diverse cast did a great job of portraying more than one character. Johnny Lee Moss did a spectacular job jumping from the character of Junie B.’s fellow first grader and best friend Herb, to Junie B.’s Grandpa. You were not able to tell that he was anything beyond an old, very loving grandfather.
This script had the funny slap stick antics and jokes that will keep the kids laughing, but it adds some jokes that teenagers and adults can laugh at too.
One great example was when the class is putting on the Columbus play and Lucille who is playing the Spanish Queen, makes a humorous side joke during the Columbus Show performance by saying “Let them eat cake.” In response, Mr. Scary responds “Wrong country” in a funny little tête-à-tête about Marie Antoinette, a joke that would easily go over a 5 year old’s head, but one a parent might find humor in. The script also sent out a good message to kids on how to treat others especially during the holiday season.
The technical designers of this particular production did well in creating a well-rounded world. The set, combined with the lighting, also created an animated a lively atmosphere. The special lighting arrangement of the school ceiling and windows was projected onto a screen along with a minimalist frame of the classroom wall and door. These creative decisions exhibited a uniquely artistic set design. The colors of the set complemented the lighting design and made for a fun cartoon-like feel. The set also had a large circle on the wall that rotated around.
This was an easy on the eye notifier of the current season in the show, a pumpkin for fall and a wreath for winter. I found this to be a clever way for everyone in the audience to know what time of year it was despite age differences. One of the most surprising things about the set was when the utilization of the stage wings as an extension to the world of the play. One side opened up to be a staircase leading Junie B. down to her basement to talk to her Grandpa. Another opened to Junie B.’s bedroom where she was able to talk to her Stuffed Elephant, played by Scott Zenreich. Though each side stage was smaller in width compared to that of the main stage, Set Designer Randal Wright did a great job in adapting. This ultimately made a set that flowed with each other by having a youthful vibe.
The costumes were also a “cherry on top” in this production in terms of completing production spectacle. Junie B. was always dressed in a way that matched her spunky personality, with funky glasses and mismatched socks. Lucille, the rich girl, was always dressed to match in the frilliest princess- style dresses any little girl would love to have. Each classmate is unique but what struck most was that Costume Designer Lyle Huchton, did a exceptional job in making each of the classmate’s costumes look youthful and just what you might see if you walked into a first grade classroom.
Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! did a wonderful job creating an entertainingly complete world in which Junie B. lives. The actors developed memorable characters, each unique, but who together created an earnest sense of ensemble. This production was an easy-going and pleasing experience that I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone looking for a way to set off this holiday season with a laugh or two.
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