So many of the Christmas stories that endure and endear most concern a character who might not be instantly lovable or filled with holiday spirit, but learn a valuable lesson about giving and living.
Junie B. Jones isn't nearly as miserly and humbugish Ebenezer Scrooge, but in Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells at Dallas Children's Theater, she's caught thinking of herself at the holidays. She's "shellfish," as her Malaprop self would say. Luckily, good sense kicks in, as it seems to do in Barbara Park's popular series of children's books.
Directed by Nancy Schaeffer, this holiday installment of the Junie B. stories (adapted for the stage by Allison Gregory) mostly takes place in the first grade classroom of Mr. Scary (Karl Schaeffer, always fun to watch). June B. (Mary McElree) sits at the end of a row of classmates that include the series regulars Herb (Johnny Lee Moss), Jose (Ivan Jasso), Sheldon (Scott Zenreich) and rich-girl Lucille (Anastasia Muñoz), not to mention Junie B.'s rival May (Shelbie Mac).
We go through several seasons in the school year. We see the class having to put on a play about Columbus' three ships, in which not every kid gets what he or she wants, and it all goes awry in one of the show's biggest laughs. When Christmastime approaches, they play secret Santa, and wouldn't you know Junie B. draw's May's name. In the end, the gift that Junie B. most wanted—a hilarious toy that makes a funny noise—ends up in someone else's sack.
"Awwwws" ensue. Holiday spirit triumphs.
You'll love Randel Wright's deceptively sprawling set—forced perspective is a wonderful trick—and Lyle Hutchon's costumes. It's not clear who designed the large version of the aforementioned toy for a fantasy sequence (Hutchon or properties designer Anna Klawitter?), but it's all terrific.
The cast is thoroughly winning. The boy students don't get a whole lot to do (Zenreich continues to perfect his portrayal of a little boy), but the girls have a ball. Muñoz makes her boastful spoiled girl a spaz, and Mac's dour May is a fitting foil to the title character. It's always fun to see adult actors playing kids, and like most of the others here, McElree doesn't solely rely on kid clichés, but makes her Junie B. as complicated as a first grader can be, like the 8-pack of Crayolas.
Going back to the "Batman smells" addition to the popular holiday song "Jingle Bells," this time the joker doesn't get away. She sticks around so we can all laugh with her.