Just as Superman spent his days in the unassuming persona of Clark Kent, a bevy of young people in the Fredericksburg area have undercover superpowers that are unleashed when they go onstage. This weekend, 70 of those dramatic dynamos will be unfurling their talents with the debuts of productions by two local community theaters. The Christian Youth Theater will be raising the curtain on “Junie B. Jones,” while Stage Door Productions will shine the spotlights on “Into the Woods Junior.”
CHRISTIAN YOUTH THEATER
For nearly 25 years, children’s author Barbara Park’s tales of the feisty, uninhibited Junie B. Jones and her ventures and challenges in kindergarten and first grade have enticed generations of youngsters to appreciate the delight that reading offers. Parks’ honest and humorous depictions of the obstacles and pitfalls that Junie encounters can be cathartic not only for elementary school children but also for middle school and high school students who are dealing with their own versions of the challenges of being accepted, navigating peer pressure and dealing with unfamiliar situations.
As the musical production begins, Junie B. Jones introduces the audience to her newest treasure—a totally blank book in which she will enter her “Top Secret Personal Beeswax” about her triumphs and travails as she transitions into the first grade. Challenges begin for Junie B. (Belle Mestler) as early as her first ride on the school bus. Though, at first, her qualms are soothed when Junie sees her kindergarten best friend, she quickly learns that Lucille (Gabriela Gover) has declared allegiance to new best friends—Camille and Chenille (Nicole Senkowski and Allie George). As if that wasn’t enough, Junie discovers that her traditional seatmate on the bus, Grace (Adrienne Bell), has also opted for a new friend, Bobbie Jean Piper (Ava Pippin)—whom Junie B. greets with her most ferocious “Grrrrr!” The word amuses and pleases a new boy on the bus, Herb (Ezekiel Manry), and Junie resigns herself to share her seat with him—in the beginnings of a blossoming friendship.
In the classroom, Junie deals with taunts from “Bossy-Head May”(Kylie Fowler) and undergoes such traumas as making her debut in a new pair of glasses and being abandoned in a kick-ball halftime performance when her co-star Sheldon (Craig Hughes) suffers stage fright. But the support of Herb and new buddies Jose (Solomon Iem) and Lennie (Joshua Chapman) enable her to prevail. The pages of Junie B.’s new notebook are quickly filled and celebrated with a “Beeswax” finale.
“The whole show is based on Junie’s journal entries and that, itself, has a message,” said the musical’s director Kara List. “Everyone has a story and everyone’s story is important. The choices you make and the way you behave is creating your life story.”
In addition, as expressed in the lyrics of one number, the show teaches “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade!”
“Junie learns that if things don’t go your way you can adapt and resolve the situation,” said List. “It goes back to taking responsibility and making a decision. It’s the opposite of a victim mentality.”
List says she is amazed at how her cast stepped so fully into their roles. At the beginning of the rehearsals, she gave performers their own notebooks to record the thoughts and feelings of their characters as they perceived them.
“They wrote pages and pages! I let them develop their characters as they envision them and I am impressed at the bold and genuine choices they are making. That is what makes this show so believable.”
Key to the success of the show was the casting of Belle as Junie B. “The challenge of casting was that our kids are talented and polished performers, but Junie B. couldn’t be farther from that. She’s a mess and everything about her life is exaggerated,” said List. “Junie isn’t trying to be funny or witty, she just is. When I was casting her character, I was looking for someone with genuine innocence, an actor who didn’t quite see her as we adults do. Belle has the innocence and authenticity I was looking for.”
“Junie is very dramatic. She takes each situation really far and makes a big deal out of everything,” said Belle. “It’s fun to be able to take that character to a bigger level. Kids who are her age will relate to her. It will look to them like she’s just one of their friends who is dancing around on stage and acting crazy!”
STAGE DOOR PRODUCTIONS
With “Into the Woods,” Stage Door Productions takes a giant step from the trials and travails of life in elementary school and whisks the audience away to a zany fantasy world where a spectrum of fairy-tale characters jumble and tumble together in overlapping quests to fulfill their wishes.
The Baker (Kimball Roberts) and his wife (Lauren West) long to have a child but, to break the spell of barrenness, they must bring the Witch (Anais Powell) three items to make her magic potion. Rapunzel (Analysa Powell) is held captive in the castle of the Witch, though her charming prince (Winston Perry) longs to spirit her away. Cinderella ambivalently leaves her shoe behind on the steps of the palace of the prince who pursues her (Jacob Thompson). Little Red (Maddie Lane) ventures through the forest to Grandmother’s house, unaware of the wolf (Isiah Brown) who lurks in the shadows. Finally, poor Jack (Andrew Kolar) does his best to meet the growing demands of his insatiable mother (Christalyn Newberger).
In the midst of these comically confused characters, the Narrator (Brandon Bolick) steps forth to announce that there is only one place where all these quests can be fulfilled and urges them to venture “Into the Woods.” With that, the fairy-tale personas begin their convoluted journeys in which they will collude and collide until, at last, they all emerge in a state of Happily Ever After. (Only Cinderella’s final musing “I wish…” opens the possibility that the saga might continue.)
“We have an amazing cast. They are all kids who are incredibly talented, and they picked up their lines quickly. I set some pretty lofty goals when we started out and they’ve really risen to the challenge,” said Paul Beaulieu, who is directing the production.
Beaulieu’s praise is validated by such characters as a Cinderella who exudes regal delicacy, Jack’s Mom whose melodramatic response to the giant falling into her garden is a scene-stealer, and a Witch whose powerful pipes can issue both ominous threats as well as a tear-jerking plea for Rapunzel’s love.
“The basic message of the show is that, in order to fulfill their desires, each character has to be willing to take that journey into the unknown—into the woods,” said Beaulieu.