Weston’s ‘Junie B. Jones’ a sugar cookie delight for kids, adults alike

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Weston's Young Company. (l to r) Michael Canada, Hannah Flam, Michael Seltzer, Carly Swenson, Tyler Jent, Mackenzie Jones and Kelly Autry

Weston’s Young Company, from left,  in Junie B. Jones, Michael Canada, Hannah Flam, Michael Seltzer, Carly Swenson, Tyler Jent, Mackenzie Jones and Kelly Autry. Weston Playhouse photo.

There are many things to look at in judging whether a show is successful or not. There are the performances, of course, but there’s also lighting, sets, costumes, staging and choreography among others. When it comes to a show for kids, however, there’s one more thing – the audience.

A couple dozen kids of elementary school age and younger attended the June 25 preview performance of Junie B. Jones, The Musical at the Weston Rod & Gun Club – and their reactions reflected how well this production captured the story.

Junie B. Jones is an ebullient, opinionated,  irrepressible pigtailed 6-year-old dressed in purple overalls, blue and white striped top, sparkly sneakers and mismatched socks.

With her “Top Secret Personal Beeswax” journal (a black and white composition notebook) in hand, she narrates her bumpy first-grade experience from the heartbreak of fickle friends and the joy of finding a new friend to the stresses of lunch, the horror of needing glasses that will make you look different and the redemptive power of the sugar cookie.

Among the audience were two girls who watched the show while whispering an excited running conversation, a pre-schooler on his mother’s lap transfixed by the singing and dancing and an older girl – maybe a fourth or fifth grader who probably read the books the musical is based on – leaning forward in her seat for the whole hour. Not a tough audience.

Weston's Young Company and "Lunch Box"

Weston’s Young Company perform ‘Lunch Box.’ Weston Playhouse photo.

But the kids who best demonstrated the power of live performance were a couple of “too cool for school” boys in hoodies, slouching with their arms crossed and looking uninterested as the show began. Slowly though, the play caught their attention and they they sat up, uncrossed their arms. By the end, it was clear that the boys were enjoying themselves.

Each season,Weston’s first the production is a musical showcase for its Young Company – seven aspiring musical theater students from several northeast conservatory programs. As Junie, Carly Swenson almost never leaves the stage, moving from joy to panic to despair and back, all at a high energy level. With her diminutive stature and open face, Swenson is well-suited to the role.  Each member of the rest of the cast — Kelly Autry, Michael Canada, Hannah Flam, Tyler Jent, Mackenzie Jones and Michael Seltzer — deftly plays multiple roles as both children and adults, entering and exiting as the story whirls around Junie.

Mixing rock, R&B, doo-wop and other styles, the music adds to the energy of the show while anchoring it on familiar and likeable ground. The same can be said of Young Company member Hannah Flam’s choreography, which consists mainly of ensemble numbers that support the emotion of the scene without distracting from it.

With small desks and chairs, a bulletin board and other classroom fixtures, the set is simple, but the black and white, composition book pattern wall with giant motivational stickers (owls, a star with a smiling face, “I ♥ school” and a bee saying ­“way to go”) is a charming touch.

And while most of the actors were dressed in basic school clothes for first graders, costume designer Collette Benoit explored the frontiers of plaid in dressing young company member Tyler Jent as Junie’s teacher, Mr. Scary. Jent, also plays the pivotal role of Gladys Gutzman, Queen of Snacks,  dressed to perfection from her lunch lady hairnet to her sensible white shoes.

Junie B. Jones, The Musical is a funny, charming hour of well-crafted entertainment aimed at kids that won’t have adults looking at their watches.

Junie B. Jones The Musical, with book and lyrics by Marcy Heisler and music by Zina Goldrich and based on the children’s book series by Barbara Park runs through July 12 at the Weston Road and Gun Club. The show is one hour long with no intermission. For information and tickets visit www.westonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 802-824-5288.

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