Lawrence Toppman

‘Junie B. Jones’ is freewheeling fun – especially if you’re 6

Junie B. Jones (Kayla Piscatelli, center) gets harsh feedback from her friends (Leslie Ann Giles, left and Ericka Ross) in “Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook” at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
Junie B. Jones (Kayla Piscatelli, center) gets harsh feedback from her friends (Leslie Ann Giles, left and Ericka Ross) in “Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook” at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Donna Bise

The thing about “Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook” is that she is, actually. Well, maybe not a crook in the sense of “thief.” But she finds property that belongs to someone else and refuses to take it to the lost-and-found at her elementary school, so draw your own conclusions.

From this small kernel comes Allison Gregory’s largely enjoyable play, based on the book by Barbara Park. I haven’t been the target age for this show since John Glenn first orbited Earth, but the audience at an elementary school performance at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte – sometimes silent, sometimes aptly vocal – took to it.

Many, like Junie, were about 6. They seemed to see themselves in her mercurial behavior, her drama-queen behavior when a small setback seems like a tragedy, her exuberant “Wowie-wow-wow!” outbursts of glee.

Park and Gregory don’t sugarcoat the characters: Junie can be a pest or an irritating showoff, and best friend Lucille is prissy, acquisitive and status-conscious. (Grace, Junie’s other best friend, remains an amiably vague blur.) Yet we take to their creativity, their ability to drop old hurts and pick up new passions. Junie is exhausting, especially in the appropriately exuberant performance of Kayla Piscatelli, but she’s appealing.

The show deals with two kindergarten crises. First, Junie loses faux fur mittens she thinks will give her elevated playground status. She assumes they’ve been stolen. So when she finds a four-color pen by the water fountain, she decides the universe righted the balance. Second, seemingly standoffish Warren (Chester Shepherd) wins the hearts of Junie, Priscilla (Leslie Ann Giles) and Grace (Ericka Ross).

An adult will know Junie’s conscience will overcome her selfishness, the mittens will turn up, and Warren suffers mainly from shyness. But children won’t. As Junie hovered above the lost-and-found box with her pen, the audience began spontaneously to chant “Drop it! Drop it!” When she did, they applauded.

Director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge and set designer Douglas Clarke make the play a romp. Roberge has actors talk as they’re coming onstage or pushing pieces of furniture, so the movement seems as hectically natural as the life of a 6-year-old. The frame of the set resembles a giant gumdrop, and Junie’s fantasies come to life: Huge chunks of paper waft from the skies for her to fill, and neon-bright drawings appear in the sky when she’s done.

Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s “Junie B. Jones is Not a Crook” runs at ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St., through Feb. 19. (ASL-interpreted performance Feb. 18.) Tickets: $12-$30. 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.

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