No offense, Harry Potter, but when it comes to drawing young readers into audiences, Tempe’s Childsplay theater company is shining the spotlight on a little girl who’s not magical at all.
Most of the time, she isn’t even grammatically correct.
Childsplay’s season-opening production of a musical "Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business" at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix is in such demand, the company says, that additional dates have been added during the run to compensate.
"Junie B. is a rock star of the first order with the under-10s," says Childsplay’s Rosemary Walsh.
Just who is Junie B. Jones?
For those not in the know, she’s the impulsive, precocious heart of Scottsdale fiction writer Barbara Park’s Junie B. series, from 1992’s "Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus" to this year’s "Junie B., First Grader: Batman Smells (P.S. So Does May)." She’s a 6-year-old prone to the most adorable, malapropic declaratives this side of Nickelodeon’s "Rugrats": "It was my worstest night ever," Junie B. declares at the start of "Junie B. Jones Has a Monster Under Her Bed." "I didn’t sleep any winks."
In Childsplay’s "Monkey Business," which takes its cue from Park’s second Junie B. book, a new baby brother and grandma’s assertion that he’s "the cutest little monkey" sends a mistaken Junie B. off to school with offers to give freak show-style peeks of her simian sibling to paying classmates. The musical adaptation, by Joan Cushing, is directed by favorite Childsplay writer/actor Dwayne Hartford and stars an adult Jenn Tabor as Junie B.
The production, Hartford says, is another showcase for Childsplay to succeed where other children’s theater companies fail — in having adults play children without coming off as too condescending.
"They’re people," Hartford says. "One of the things we really try to do is tap into the humanity of the characters. You don’t have to play at being a kid."
Not that everything has been smooth sailing in bringing "Monkey Business" to the stage. There’s the little matter of the controversy surrounding Junie B., a character who some parents have deemed too abrasive, too ready with bad words like — plug your ears — "dumb," "stupid" and "meanie." One Childsplay board member rolled his eyes at the idea of staging "Monkey Business": "Those books," he said, "are not read in my house."
Truth be told, Junie B. is a bit of a brat.
"Maybe that’s a little strong," Walsh says. "She exhibits some bratty tendencies. But kids really identify with someone who blurts the first thing that comes into their heads and goes off on leaps of fantasy without overthinking things. Without thinking at all, really."
‘Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business’
When: 2 and 5 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, various dates to be added (call for information) during run, through Oct. 1
Where: Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix
Cost: $22, $18 for students and seniors
Information: (480) 350-8119