Junie B Jones in Jingle Bells Batman Smells! is a charming piece of family comedy playing at Maryland Ensemble Theatre through January 1, 2017. The Fun Company takes on Allison Gregory’s adaptation of the Barbara Parks youth novels with a nicely enlarged sense of childhood’s daily existential pleasures and terrors.
Gregory’s adaptation dramatizes many of the more delightful bits in Parks, from turning Mr. Scary’s rules before tattling into a group ritual, to recasting the three ships of Columbus’s 1492 voyage as competitors in a race, to turning a belching toy into the most sought after treasure on Earth.
Julie Herber’s overall directorial concept works well to capture the Parks universe, though sometimes the blocking feels more proscenium than it should in MET’s thrust layout. The production as a whole engages all ages with bright colors, funny surprises, and a blend of childhood fantasy and angst.
The cast manage to not only ape the awkwardly pretentious behavior of school kids, but create a unique set of qualities for each one, so that scanning the stage one truly sees a broad spectrum of daydreaming, obedience, defiance, distraction, and boredom.
Emily Raines, in the title role, has the right ostentatious energy (Jones’s aria about space travel is enlarged beautifully) mixed with deep self-doubt (to watch her reactions to Mr. Scary’s disapproval one might think he were a literal gorgon).
Mr. Scary is played with surprising but effective subtlety by Reiner Prochaska, whose sincere compassion and endless patience defy his name.
In a cast filled with strong performances, I was particularly impressed by Katie Rattigan, whose timing as the spoiled Lucille and faux sincerity as the head of the PTA demonstrated flawless commitment to two wholly divergent character types.
The set by Cecelia Lee is a cute take on the archetypal classroom, with round, low standing pastel green table tops that match the walls, and baby blue and white floors. The tables are efficiently used to prop up incidental scenic pieces like an ocean map for the Columbus “play-within-a-play.”
Doug Grove supplements the general LED wash with clever lighting tricks like a demonic red terror shift whenever the Principal’s office is mentioned (though this particular cue might be more effective if faster paced). Props and costumes are both the work of Herber; such amusing costume bits as a four-foot stretched out sweater arm decorate the performance.
As this reviewer’s eight-year-old and four-year-old children confirmed with wide eyes and gushing praise, Junie B. Jones is exactly what children’s theatre should be: at turns funny, strange, fantastical, colorful, and spooky. It’s a perfect show for families, but one that will delight any theatergoer.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Junie B Jones in Jingle Bells Batman Smells! plays Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 PM through January 1, 2017, at Maryland Ensemble Theatre – 31 West Patrick Street, in Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 694-4744, or purchase them online.