As far as bad kids go, Junie B. Jones is one of the best.
She's not horrible, mind you. She's not a bully. She doesn't have terror on the mind. But she does speak her mind, and speak it loudly. She's not afraid to tattle. She'll point fingers at those who have wronged her, either by just provocation or just breathing the wrong way. She defends herself, even if that means ruining a foe's day.
So in that way, she's not the kind of role model all parents would cling their little ones to. But that shouldn't stop you from indulging in a visit to the Allendale Theatre for the Theatre of Youth's latest Junie B. Jones offering, the holiday-themed "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells." It is a hoot.
The "Jones" franchise is a hot one, born from a series of books by Barbara Parks. It follows the vocal grade-schooler through the trials and tribulations of being an attitudinal tomboy. She is to kids today what Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby was in the 1960s and '70s, and Punky Brewster was in the '80s: spunky, principled and outspoken.
Parks' stamp of modern girlhood is in good hands with this production. If her protagonist's scheming ways aren't the ideal mold for good young ladies, then her ability to embrace a hard-learned lesson is. She may drag her feet on the way to the moral, but she jumps right in when she arrives. (Who doesn't drag his/her feet, at any age?)
Her classmates are a wild bunch, too. The archetypes in play -- rambunctious, oblivious, prideful, awkward and pugnacious -- are frank and true, as far as first-graders go. They're adorable in their own way, but definitely not all cute. What a relief.
Julie Schillaci leads the group as Junie B. with tenacity and control. She narrates with a confiding and trusting tone, as if confirming the internal monologue of every like-minded girl in the audience. Schillaci holds onto Junie B.'s heart and soul, where it does appear, which is crucial to a character like this. One cruel laugh and our girl could easily fall off the fence into coarse and bratty territory.
As Junie B.'s enemy, the know-it-all May, Arin Lee Dandes is fantastic. She provokes her archnemesis with a jealousy that Dandes is smart to let peek out in doses. She is not merely "the bad kid"; she is misunderstood and hurt. Smart for Dandes to use the nuances of shame and pain the way she so cleverly does. It makes what would have been a fun performance a smart performance.
Elsewhere, there is great comedy. Scott Malkovsky is Junie B.'s lanky, dorky, giggling best friend Herb. He has few lines, but Malkovsky makes use of his body for most of his laughs. Malkovsky manages to evoke the boyish charm of Jimmy Fallon, the candid timing of Steve Martin, and the physical elasticity of Martin Short, without ever looking like he's trying.
Kevin Craig's snot-laden Sheldon is unaware of everything around him and his nose, which makes keeping an eye on him fun. Bryan Figueroa is pleasing in his quiet roles. Tim Newell gives his signature Newellness, which adults in the room will know and enjoy.
Danica Riddick's braggadocios Lucille, who commends her family's wealth whenever she can, is delightful in her own pink-princess way, but her quick turn as an adult PTO volunteer is full of odd choices. Thankfully it's a brief hiccup in what is otherwise a fun 90 minutes with some pretty cool kids.
"Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells"
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Dec. 18
WHERE: Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St.
INFO: www.theatreofyouth.org, 884-4400