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The cast of Junie B. Jones
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
There are mixed opinions these days about whether or not musical theater has a promising future. One of the strongest arguments that it absolutely does is the team of Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. Handy contradictions to the tired comment about today's tunesmiths that "they don't write them like they used to," Heisler and Goldrich do write them like they used to -- with freshness, wit, intelligence, insight, humor, and lilting melody. They work imaginatively in a tradition that they not only add to but advance.

If anything has held them back, it's the times, which now ignore show tunes almost completely, and Broadway economics, which mitigate against producers taking chances on unknowns. (With the Jeff Marx-Robert Lopez-Jeff Whitty Avenue Q Tony win, there are hopeful signs for change.) Yet Heisler and Goldrich have been quietly establishing many of their inspired ditties. Their "Taylor (The Latte Boy)," a cabaret staple, shows up this month on Broadway songbird Susan Egan's Coffee House CD, along with a melting Heisler-Goldrich ballad. Their songs are in such demand among savvy boite singers that the pair have put out Goldrich and Heisler: Songbook Volume 1. But although the team's spangly-bright Adventures in Love revue was successfully done in Minneapolis a few years ago, none of their complete musical theater works have been presented in New York City. Until now.

As Theatreworks/USA has done in the past with newish writers, the outfit is once again giving genuine talent a showcase. Junie B. Jones, with lyrics and libretto by Heisler and music by Goldrich, is bowing for a summer run as Sarah, Plain and Tall did two years ago. In keeping with the Theatreworks/USA policy to support shows adapted from a source recognizable to school auditorium bookers, Junie B. Jones is taken from Barbara Park's 23 books about a spunky youngster who charges through grade school undaunted even though she has to wear glasses and isn't as popular as a rich girl named Lucille.

Now for the less-than-great news: While the treatment of the indefatigable Junie has its lively moments, it doesn't boast many likely candidates for the second volume of the Heisler-Goldrich songbook. Perhaps the collaborators weren't aiming for that, since this is a show for kids in kindergarten through third grade; but contributors to Sesame Street have long since demonstrated that songs with adult appeal can be written for children. For Junie B. Jones, Heisler and Goldrich have composed a string of ditties that get the toes tapping but don't linger in memory once they've ended. "When Life Gives You Lemons," about making the best of a bad situation, does have staying power. And "Gladys Gutzman," especially as choreographed by Devanand Janki, works as a take-off of calculated showstoppers like "Mame" and "One." Otherwise, this is a cheerful score but not top-drawer Heisler-Goldrich.

The problem may lie not so much with Heisler and Goldrich as with the Park tomes, which are episodic but don't go for plot in a big way. Junie B. Jones is something of an Eloise without the Plaza staff to boss around. (In Denise Brunkus's illustrations of Junie, the Plaza kid seems to be a strong influence: Junie's got an Eloise haircut with floppy bow, stands hip cocked, and sports Mary Janes.) The tyke is unremittingly brash and knows what she wants. For that reason, she may be less endearing to grown-ups than she is to Parker's kiddie readers. Junie also speaks in questionable grammar, but Heisler has cleaned that up, perhaps at the request of the Theatreworks monitors. The worst of Junie's fractured English here are comments such as, "It is very too sad to talk about."

Basing the musical primarily on Junie B. Jones, First Grader (At Last!), Heisler brings on Junie (Mary Faber) as she enters that vaunted level and begins filling a marble notebook with her adventures. Those adventures include losing best friend Lucille (Keara Hailey) to twins Camille and Chenille (Adam Overett, Darius Nichols), finding a new friend in the gallant Herbert (Overett again), bickering with fellow student May (Jill Abramovitz), discovering that she has to wear glasses, causing a ruckus in the cafeteria under the supervision of Gladys Gutzman (Michael McCoy, not un-reminiscent of Edna Turnblad), and deciding that she'd like to juggle in the half-time show of the kickball tournament. As Heisler handles her, no central problem engages Junie. She merely seems to barrel along until she's filled her notebook and until, with her colleagues, she advises audience tots to write their adventures down as well. That suggestion seems to constitute the lesson that the show teaches, and it's a good one.

Michael McCoy and Mary Faber
in Junie B. Jones
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The guiding mavens at Theatreworks/USA have been at their work for decades now, and they know how to do it slickly. They're gotten Peter Flynn to direct with an eye to keeping things moving, Luke Hegel-Cantarella to design a set that features a large marble notebook out of which the story tumbles, Jeff Croiter to light the set gaily, and Jill BC Du Boff to make the sound perky. Lara LaVon designed the costumes. To some extent, she's been faithful to the Brunkus drawings, although -- as with the frilly Lucille-Camille-Chenille frocks -- her costumes are not necessarily in keeping with how kids dress for school success these days.

The cast -- adults who, for the most part, are playing children -- is wired and ready. Mary Faber, who might remind some older observers of Phyllis Newman in her early days, is an energy bundle and certainly can't be blamed for stressing the Eloise elements of Junie; they're built in. Playing everyone else and slipping in and out of their outfits with enviable speed are Adam Overett, Darius Nichols, Keara Hailey, Michael McCoy (who plays teachers, Junie's pleasant father, and Gladys Gutzman), and Jill Abramovitz. The last named thesp creates the show's most riveting character in May, a young girl who drapes herself over her chair in languid poses. Abramovitz is a hoot when doing this and she also has a moment that's a favorite of mine: Having to leave the stage as May in order to become Junie's pleasant mother after a quick change, she stands up, feigns the need to visit the lavatory, and darts off.

The classic problem of adults reviewing children's shows is, needless to say, the challenge of seeing through children's eyes and hearing through children's ears. It can't be done. So it behooves me to report that the many young 'uns in the Junie B. Jones audience with whom I shared the event never got restless. This is a high compliment. On the other hand, they didn't laugh very much at Junie's shenanigans or those of her peers. They responded most to the numbers that also delighted the adults -- the Gladys Gutzman turn, for instance. I should also report that a little boy across the aisle from me, who couldn't have been more than three or four, hopped off his father's lap to dance to one of Goldrich's jauntier tunes. That sight was cute as could be, whereas Junie B. Jones is not quite so cute as could be.

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