Traveling children’s theater org Theatreworks USA celebrates its 47th season with a return engagement at the Lortel of the 2004 kid-tuner “Junie B. Jones.” The one-acter is in fine shape, better than the first time round, and should enthuse the 5- to 8-year-old crowd through its seven-week stint.
When “Junie” was first produced, authors Marcy Heisler (book and lyrics) and Zina Goldrich (music) seemed poised for the big time, with a number of their songs already familiar from cabarets and recordings. Their work on this mini-musical indicated both were talented and ready. Today, they remain waiting in the wings, although their Broadway-bound musical, “Ever After,” is still on track, with no dates announced but with Doug Hughes attached to direct.
“Junie B. Jones” is based on the popular series of books by Barbara Park, which were first published in 1992 — when some of today’s parents were still in grade school. Junie B. is an irrepressibly rambunctious first-grader who takes no nonsense from no one. The Junie B. books are somewhat controversial nowadays, since the heroine’s English, while colorful, is not especially grammatical, and she ain’t much of a speller — a poor role model, some educators say, for kids just learning to read and write.
These issues do not affect “Junie” in the theater; in fact, they only serve to increase her stage-worthiness. Jennifer Cody brings the perfect amount of mugging, grimacing and sprawling to the role. She is joined by a group of equally capable performers, who know just how far to go and — at the same time — how to execute Devanand Janki’s choreography to maximum effect. (The original production had a cast of relative unknowns. This time there are three actors with strong Broadway credentials, which just might be why the show seems considerably improved.)
John Scherer, from last season’s “LoveMusik,” stands out as cafeteria lady Gladys Gutzman (among his other roles). Scherer plays Gladys as a combination of Dame Edna, Mrs. Doubtfire and Ron Liebman; he seems to be auditioning for “Hairspray,” and the roars from the Lortel patrons — children and adults — speak for themselves.
Blake Ginther (“Les Miserables”) plays Junie’s friend Herb in a likable style, no matter if he looks 20 years too old for the role. Sarah Saltzberg (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) makes a suitably sharp-elbowed rival for Junie — as well as playing her mother. Shannon Antalan and Randy Aaron also do well in their various roles.
Peter Flynn’s staging and especially Janki’s choreography seem appreciably sharper than in 2004, but maybe due to the performers. The physical production is modest but sassy, with costume designer Lora LaVon providing a fair share of mirthful laughs. Music is taped, rather obviously so, but that’s to be expected from a touring children’s theater company.