I cannot speak with any authority on the caustic slur leveled against the Caped Crusader in the title of Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! But I am prepared to issue a blunt statement about the other title character in the current Children's Theatre production: she is not the perfect role model.
Junie B. is not the epitome of patience, tolerance, or good cheer in her everyday dealings with her arch-enemy, tattletale May. Manners? Wretched. Grammar? Messier than her room. As the Yuletide season approaches, Junie B. is more the essence of selfishness and malice than generosity and goodwill. Reluctantly assuming the role of May's secret Santa, Junie B. decides to gift her nemesis with a lump of coal.
Scratch that. Junie B. is too lazy to scrounge up a real lump of coal. So charcoal it is.
Yikes, sounds like she's exactly the kindergartner that Barbara Park envisioned when she created her wildly popular series of Junie B. Jones books. In adapting the romper room parable for the stage, Allison Gregory doesn't seem to have added a single speck of sugar-coating to our heroine's shortcomings, even after she has matriculated into first grade.
Director Ron Chisholm and his team of designers pile on the comedy. When Junie steps out of the action — and into monologue mode — lighting designer David Fillmore and sound designer Colin Powers turn those moments into spotlit cartoon cameos. And when Junie and May's teacher, the ever-positive Mr. Scary, invokes the threat of sending the two incorrigibles to the principal's office, a pair of chairs drops from the flyloft, portentously suspended in mid-air next to an office door. The door of Damocles!
Set designer Anna Sartin has fashioned a revolving stage that fills a hefty chunk of McColl Family Theatre. So when Mr. Scary's class visits the wonderful sanctum where Elf Ellen has neatly arranged all the irresistible gifts the kids can buy — from a blinding array of tattoos for a buck to the ultimate Squeeze-A-Burp pig doll for a whole five dollars — we watch them as they return to the classroom with the floor revolving beneath them.
My wife Sue and I (plus an enthusiastic full house) felt the sensation of unwrapping a surprise gift at ImaginOn as we beheld the onstage merits of all the Batman Smells newcomers. Caroline Rigby is a perfectly calibrated Junie B., obnoxious without being too objectionable, brimming with dishy candor, while Casi Harris, part of the power backup trio in Seussical back in September, strides capably to the forefront as May. Like many a snitch, May is more upright than our heroine, but it is she who tosses in the monkey wrench that prevents a truce, refusing to add the requisite B when addressing Junie.
I'll defer judgment on Kendall Payne's debut as Jose, the Hispanic first-grader, because his role isn't as juicy as the others', but we can definitely signal a thumbs-up for Daniel O'Sullivan, who gets to incorporate a little rap into Junie's best friend Herb. Mandy Moss, also promoted from backup Seussical duty, gets to primp and cartwheel as Isabel, the spoiled rich classmate. But it's Jeremy Shane in two outre roles, hypochondriac Sheldon at school and Junie's elephant doll at home, who gets to upstage everyone.
That includes the two adults, Josh Looney as Mr. Scary and musical director Drina Keen, who is drafted onstage to do music teacher Miss Toot and the biddy Elf. Saddled with a holiday moral, Batman isn't quite as infantile as A Little Monkey Business, the initial Junie staged at ImaginOn five seasons ago. But there's marvelous mayhem along the way, for the disastrous holiday sing-along is foreshadowed by a catastrophic Columbus play that gives Scary's whole class plenty to atone for.
Thank heaven they don't.