Among popular children's book characters, few are quite as charming or psychologically complex as Junie B. Jones.
The quirky first-grader is a reduction of adult impulses and drives, a pint-sized vessel for pint-sized lessons about kindness, compassion and conflict.
That is presumably why she is a perennial favorite of Theatre of Youth, which is presenting a charming production of "Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" in the Allendale Theatre through Dec. 18.
The show, appropriate for ages 6 and up but more than charming enough to sustain the attention of adults, is set in a first grade class. Both the calm nature of classroom teacher Mr. Scary (Larry Smith) and the fact that the class has only six students inserts this play firmly into the realm of fantasy -- the better for its neatly packaged lessons on resolving conflicts and embracing the spirit of giving to sink in.
The central conflict involves a running dispute between Junie B. Jones (Renee Landrigan) and her fellow student May (Arin Lee Dandes). These first-grade frenemies are constantly at one another's throats as they struggle to control their own impulses: May's is to tattle on her fellow students, while Junie's is to let her gut reactions drive her actions.
The interaction between Landrigan and Dandes is a joy to watch. Even against the simplicity of the narrative and Ken Shaw's exaggerated sets topped with gargantuan bows, their frustration is fully credible, as is the détente they eventually reach.
And Landrigan delivers Junie's malapropisms and unfiltered thoughts with gusto. Some favorites: "Sometimes if you glare hard enough, you can melt people's heads," and, "We get to perform our play onstage in front of people. Plus also our parents."
All of this unfolds across a series of tidy vignettes and against a "Sesame Street"-esque backdrop of socioeconomic diversity. There's a girl from a rich family (Danica Riddick) who can't stop talking about how much privilege she has; a boy from a poor Latino family (Dan Torres); a boy from a Jewish family; and a middle-class white kid (Dan Urtz).
Without beating you over the head with its Christmas-tinged message about the importance of understanding and generosity in a diverse society, this "Junie B. Jones" rewards theatergoers young and old. It's also an attractive afternoon escape for families looking for something beyond the usual holiday fare.
Three stars (out of four)
"Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells," a play with music for children, runs through Dec. 18 in the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St. Tickets are $15 to $28. Call 884-4400 or visit theatreofyouth.org.