MURRAY – Playhouse in the Park will bring the popular children’s book series character Junie B. Jones to life starting this Friday with its newest musical.

The Junie B. Jones series – which totaled more than 30 books – was written by Barbara Park and published by Random 

House from 1992 to 2013. “Junie B. Jones, The Musical” was created by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich in 2005.

“It’s Junie B.’s first day of first grade, and a lot of things have changed for her,” reads the summary from Music Theatre International. “Junie’s friend, Lucille, doesn’t want to be her best pal anymore and, on the bus, Junie B. makes friends with Herb, the new kid at school. Also, Junie has trouble reading the blackboard and her teacher, Mr. Scary, thinks she may need glasses. Throw in a friendly cafeteria lady, a kickball tournament and a ‘Top-Secret Personal Beeswax Journal,’ and first grade has never been more exciting.”

Playhouse Executive Director Lisa Cope said that with this being the first regular season since the pandemic, the play selection committee wanted to choose shows they thought large numbers of people would want to come see. “Junie B. Jones” certainly seemed to fit the bill, she said.

“We were trying to choose things that we thought would be appealing to people, and so we knew right off the bat that we wanted to do something with children,” Cope said. “For one thing, I have missed so much having young people in that theater. We knew going in that we wanted to do a show featuring children, so we looked at several, and this is a fairly new musical, this particular version. There’s also several (‘Junie B. Jones’ adaptations) that are straight plays.”

It’s been more than seven years since Playhouse last did a show related the Junie B. Jones series. In 2014, Playhouse presented a Christmas double bill with the short shows “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells Batman Smells.” Cope said at that time, the series was popular enough that about 90 kids auditioned, so she ended up triple-casting the “Jones” show so no one had to be left out. But given that many of the kids in that cast have since graduated from high school, Cope said she was curious to see if it still had the name recognition it once did. Luckily, she said about 30 kids auditioned.

“They know and love these characters,” Cope said. “I just wasn’t sure that they would, but they do. They know the books, they know the characters, so it’s still popular.”

Cope described the show as “cute and funny,” so the committee decided to take a chance on it. She said the songs are quite catchy, and some of the cast members’ parents and adult crew members have told her they have been surprised by how much they have enjoyed the music. The show explores common childhood experiences like starting a new grade and dealing with friendship drama, and Cope said while the story contains several valuable life lessons, the tone isn’t preachy, and any potential “message” is hidden under lots of humor and fun.

Lydia Smith, a fifth-grader at Murray Middle School, plays the title character, and Jones said it has been a joy to watch her and the rest of cast nail down their characters so naturally.

“Because the characters are mostly familiar to them, they know how they’re supposed to act, like if this kid is supposed to be bossy and this one isn’t,” Cope said. “It’s been fun to just watch them kind of create those characters, really on their own.”

Valera Brooks and AnnaBelle Mills are the show’s musical directors. Cope said Brooks is the regular director for the Box of Frogs youth theater troupe, and Mills is a teenager who wanted to get more deeply involved at Playhouse than she previously had been. Cope said many other regular volunteers have been learning new behind-the-scenes roles than they have occupied in the past, so it has been a great training ground for future shows.

The show will play May 13-22 at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, visit www.playhousemurray.org or call 270-759-1752.