This weekend, my daughter Beatrice and I found ourselves sandwiched between two of the most celebrated sassy redheads of the lower school set. And come to find out, that turned out to be just the ticket to warm up raw December days during the holidays — and to offer a few good laughs and lovely life lessons along the way.
The first of those pint-sized firebrands was Junie B. Jones, the bespectacled star of the famed book series by Barbara Park that follows its spunky, truth-talking heroine through kindergarten and first grade. The books have become modern-day classics with similar youngsters finding their bearings in the brave new world of the classroom. Fully in the throes of her free-ranging id, Junie B. is in a perennial pickle reconciling her unchecked, classic-kid impulses — often surrounding burps, playmates and all-around goofing off — with her emerging ego’s conscience that keeps threatening to spoil all the fun.
Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! is playwright Allison Gregory’s amiable stage take on the series’ holiday edition, which offers seasonal red-and-green eye-candy as well as a choice moral stocking stuffer, too. Presented by Charleston Stage under the direction of Marybeth Clark, the show is performed by its repertory company of adults who are here tasked with some serious regression in their various roles as a pack of first graders (plus a teacher or two).
A cheery, wintry wisp of a show clocking in at an hour and fifteen minutes, the action centers on Junie B. as she amps up to upend the Holiday Sing-Along and, at the same time, plots to vindicate a blabbermouth named May by way of a not-so-nice secret Santa. Throughout, there are plenty of age-appropriate and snigger-inducing shenanigans (with perhaps one or two missed opportunities on the part of the playwright to mine the diverse experiences of Junie B.’s classmates from various backgrounds, from a first-generation Hispanic student to a credit-card bearing little rich girl).
But back to Junie B. Since I’m currently reading the series aloud to Beatrice, I know a little more about giving voice to our impish heroine than I would likely trot out at a cocktail party. Said portrayal calls for capturing Junie B.’s unvarnished take on the world — delivered in a comedic style capable of eliciting the intended mischievous grin out of its young audience.
I will be the first to concede to actress Grace Hamashima. Her charmingly disarming go at the pixie protagonist quickly (and not surprisingly) knocked my own stilted bedtime characterization out of the park. She gave us the unadulterated (as it were) juvenile POV in a Junie B. with plenty of gumption and sparkle, who at the same time never grated on my parental sensibilities.
Beatrice concurred, fully approving of this transfer from page to stage. With an equally kid-quirky remaining cast, and a Crayola-toned little set, the show was a palpable crowd-pleaser, particularly when it had my little theater buddy in its thrall during Junie B.’s crucial moment of spiritual truth.
Around the corner at the Footlight Players on Sunday, we met perhaps the most beloved redhead in the children’s canon (though some may fight for Pippi Longstocking on this question). There, we took in an ambitious production of Annie, the musical that in 1977 brought to fire-engine-red life the comic strip charting the trials and triumphs of a relentlessly optimistic Depression-era orphan who packs a punch while she melts your heart.
In full disclosure, I come to this show as both an Annie-head and a redhead to boot. On a childhood family trip to New York City, my first bona fide Broadway experience was from a plush balcony seat in which I perched, rapt, taking in Andrea McArdle, the original Annie, as she belted out “Tomorrow.”
With this way-back machine baggage in tow, I am happy to report that Emerson Page Sarre was a lovely, likeable Annie, supported with charge and charm by the rest of her orphan entourage. An extra nod goes to Lane Yarborough as the spirited Molly. Energized dance numbers spark the show, offering plenty of buzz for the potential squirming in the matinee house. When it comes to vocals, the showstopper of the bunch was Nina Himes as Grace, adding gorgeous warmth to the production. And for jokes, Beatrice was quick to tap Miss Hannigan, played by Susie Hallett with a formidable fuggeddaboutit New York accent and ensuing antics.
At the close of the weekend, this tale of two redheads provided terrific conversational fodder with my four-year-old, as over Sunday supper we compared and contrasted the two carrot tops. Who would we rather joke around with? Beatrice quickly opted for cut-up Junie B. However, when we mulled which of the pair we’d rather have for a secret Santa, warm-hearted Annie won hands-down. So it appears sugar and spice still make a winning combination in holiday fare, particularly in merry shades of red.