By Gillian Foley
A First-Rate First-Grader
Kai Tomizawa deserves to be the center of attention in Junie B. Jones
For a short window in first grade, I was convinced that my life was a musical. I sang to myself on the walk to school, as my mom made dinner, and as I played with my toys. I danced on the playground. It was probably the best few weeks of my life—I mean, who doesn’t want to be a star of their own musical? Unfortunately, this delusion was quickly dispelled; I’m a terrible singer, a worse dancer, and my life really wasn’t that interesting.
I don’t think I was such a special kid that way; I think everyone goes through a phase like that. This idea is celebrated in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s adaptation of Barbara Park’s bestselling series, Junie B. Jones. But her heroine had a bit more success than I did.
I had more fun watching this production than I had have in a long time. Every scene was jam-packed with lively songs, and the ups and downs of being a first-grader. It was only an hour, but it flew by.
I couldn’t have anticipated this excitement based on my memories of the books from when I was a kid. My sister liked them well enough, but I felt they were a bit one-note, and the incorrect grammar drove my mom crazy. On paper, it’s a pretty straightforward plot: Junie B. is a normal six-year-old girl who struggles with normal six-year-old problems. She’s nervous about starting school; she’s prescribed glasses; she struggles to find friends; she hurts her toe right before the big kickball game! From her perspective, these problems feel like the end of the world. Six-year-olds, however, have very short memories, and their world is always righted quickly.
So why is the musical at Oregon Children’s Theater so delightful? Same simple plot; colorful, cute costumes; simple, minimalist set…but it’s the cast that truly brings the production alive. Their energy is contagious; you can truly tell that they’re enjoying themselves up on stage. Last weekend, the kids in the audience around me bounced, smiled, and pointed at every song; they barely managed to stay in their seats.
Kai Tomizawa, a seventh grader, played Junie B. and truly brought her to life. She’s everything you could possibly ask for in that character, and she really didn’t miss a note. Her singing voice is amazing, and the musical numbers left us all smiling (I smile even now as I write this). The dialogue bridges between the songs are equally entertaining, and the actress keeps the audience rooting for her throughout. The play is all about Junie B., and with a lesser performer, I doubt I would’ve been equally swept away.
I think that’s what made this production so successful: Junie B. is, very literally, the star of her own musical, and Kai Tomizawa helps us all remember how that can feel: a whole world of tussle and triumph, fleeting enemies and forever friends, doubt and redoubled confidence— everything revolves around Junie B. And, for an hour, I was happy to be in her orbit.