Theater review: ‘Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells’ at Orlando Rep

Junie B. knows how to get to kids.

More accurately, the grownups behind Junie B. Jones, and Barbara Park’s long string of Junie B. Jones books, know how to get to kids. Just start off a story with an elaborate discussion of throw-up, and you’ve got a young audience hooked.

So, right from the beginning, Orlando Repertory Theatre’s production of Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells is well on its way to a young audience’s heart – and that’s long before the pint-sized theatergoers get to giggle at Philip Johnny Bob, the very large stuffed elephant who comes to floppy life, or before they can ooh and aah at her Christmas tree.

To say that Junie B. is just calculated to tickle kids’ fancies is to overlook the good cheer that emanates from director Jeff Revels’ low-key, sweet-tempered production, which ambles along on the talents of some able actors. An early field-trip performance of the show last week seemed to move a little slowly, with numerous set changes sapping the energy the cast creates. But there’s so much silly good humor to be had that you quickly learn a Junie B. truism: Nobody can stay mad at her for long.

Junie B., in case you’ve somehow missed the 29 or so books that bear her name, is an irascible first-grader, fond of crayons and her best friend Herbert and no more fixated on throw-up and whoopee cushions than any other average six-year-old. Junie B. has a habit of speaking her mind, and that habit gets her into trouble. But she’s also more attuned than the typical first-grader to the niceties of life: When her friend Herbert reacts to something she says with an awe-struck “Whoa,” Junie turns to explain to those of us too old to understand: “’Whoa’ is what we say to be supportive.”

Rep scenic designer Cindy White has provided Mr. Scary’s first-grade classroom with great big desks and chairs (so that the adult actors playing kids look perfectly in scale), and Junie B.’s swell little bedroom set brings out cries of delight from the children in the audience. (So does the Christmas tree, but aren’t most of us feeling the anticipation right about now?)

Even more fun are designer Marcy Singhaus’s crazy collage of costumes, nearly all of them in muted but clashing prints, as if somebody had broken into Beaver Cleaver’s family wardrobe and resurrected nearly every piece.

Revels has developed a big pool of able children’s-theater actors, and here you’ll see some good ones: Sam Little as a long-suffering, not-remotely-frightening Mr. Scary; Michael Marinaccio as ever-supportive Herb; and especially Sarah Jane Fridlich as the tattletale May, the bane of Junie B.’s existence; and Beth Neel as a Junie B. who may be well-meaning but certainly has been branded too smart for her own good.

The rest of the cast is all fine (although Krysta Robinson has to contend with playing a character, the grandiose Lucille, whose tics get tiresome very quickly). And I suspect the stop-and-start pacing that plagued the early performance I saw has been ironed out by now. There are too many oddball laughs here, and there’s too much good cheer, for anybody to get itchy for very long.

‘Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells’

What: Orlando Repertory Theatre production of Allison Gregory’s adaptation of Barbara Park books.
Where: Orlando Repertory Theatre, 1001 E. Princeton St., Orlando.
When: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 5:30 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 19.
Cost: $17 general, $15 age 55 and older, $11 children.
Call: 407-896-7365.
Online: orlandorep.com.

Photo, clockwise from left: Sarah Jane Fridlich, Michael Marinaccio, Jose Miguel Vasquez, Krysta Robinson, Beth Neel and Aaron Smalls. Photo by Eric Blackmore/Orlando Repertory Theatre.

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