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JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK at TOY explicates 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” for the 1st grade set.

THE BASICS: JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK, a play for ages 6+ by Alison Gregory presented by Theatre of Youth, with remaining shows Saturday March 17 at 1 p.m. (the day before the St. Paddy’s parade engulfs Allentown) and Saturday and Sunday March 24 and 25, at both 1 and 4 is at the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen Street (884-4400). Runtime: 75 minutes without intermission. There is a Q&A with the actors moderated by the director following each performance.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Inspired by two of Barbara Parks’ popular Junie B. Jones series of books for children – Junie B. Jones Loves Handsome Warren and Junie B. Jones Is Not A Crook, this play by Allison Gregory brings the spunky and irrepressible character back to the TOY stage. There are several dramatic tensions: Junie is upset, convinced that someone took her favorite new black mittens; meanwhile Junie has found someone else’s four-color pen and invokes “Finders Keepers; Losers Weepers,” and one of her best friends, Lucille, believes that Junie has “stolen” her good-looking “boyfriend,” the new boy in school known as “Handsome Warren.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Renee Landrigan reprises her role as Junie B. Jones and is even more “unleashed” than her last performance in JINGLE BELLS, BATMAN SMELLS. Particularly wonderful this time in the classroom scenes, Landrigan as Junie delivered hilarious physical comedy – Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett quality – lolling on the bean bag chairs, bothering the other students, and driving her teacher almost nuts. Landrigan is surrounded by a very competent cast including her bffs Dominique Kempf as Lucille, the rich girl and Christine Seshie as Grace, with Connor Graham as Handsome Warren (and he really is!), TOY regular Daniel Torres as a fellow student, Brendan Didio in various utility roles, and Melinda Capeles as both the teacher and Junie’s mom.

Landrigan as Junie delivered hilarious physical comedy – Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett quality – lolling on the bean bag chairs, bothering the other students, and driving her teacher almost nuts.

Once again, as is so often the case at TOY, the set (downstage schoolroom with bean bag chairs and playground with gigantic Lego blocks and upstage painted drops) along with the costumes (very charming and on point as far as the script goes) all by Kenneth Shaw allow for lightning quick transitions, since an audience of first and second graders is not going to sit there in the dark waiting for scene changes.

And the direction by “the boss” (Meg Quinn is the Artistic Director) is clear with plenty of body language to advance the story, so if you bring a sibling younger than 6 years of age to the play, there will be plenty to occupy them.

The moral lessons are clear: Don’t make assumptions based on incomplete evidence; Act as you would want others to act (sometimes expressed as “The Golden Rule” or as philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” to wit: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”), and practice forgiveness (and that does takes practice).

However, there really are no moralizing speeches or penitential scenes. Hey, it’s a kid’s show, and the Theatre of Youth, now in their 46th season, has been doing this for a long, long time.

I was a little surprised by the introduction of the concept of “boyfriend” in a play about kindergarten/first graders, not to mention talk of possession of and stealing of said boyfriend, or the fact that physical beauty (“Handsome Warren”) is a value. Shades of “The Bachelorette?” But, the author, playwright, director, and most of the actors are women, and if this doesn’t affect their PC sensibilities, then I’m probably reading too much into this.

As always, a gem of a production.

UP NEXT: STELLALUNA (for ages 4+) May 5 through June 2.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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