Judy & Stink’s big fat treasure hunt

Oregon Children's Theatre's world premiere of a fresh Judy Moody adventure searches for clues on a vacation island

To kick off its 30th season, Oregon Children’s Theatre has premiered a huge event: the first production in a rolling world premiere of Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt. Based on the popular children’s books by Megan McDonald, Judy Moody & Stink was co-commissioned by seven children’s theater companies around the nation, and Oregon Children’s Theatre is the first of the seven to get it onstage. On opening night, Artistic Director Stan Foote – who also directs the play – announced that playwright Allison Gregory and one of the other commissioning artistic directors were in the house.

Nothing to crab about: a fantasy treasure hunt. Photo: Owen Carey

A first-of-its-kind commission of this magnitude, launching at Portland’s own Newmark Theatre, can tend to give theatergoers lofty expectations. And, while the production is solid – with bright sets that change before your eyes, a clue-riddled plot, and solid performances across the board (with an exceptional one or two) – it doesn’t quite live up to those heights.

A Judy Moody story, after all, is inherently small in scale – and this production is just that. The plot centers on Judy’s feeling that her life lacks adventure: compared to her friends’ and classmates’ trips to Disney World, she thinks it’s completely boring. So her parents decide to take her to nearby Ocracoke Island. While even Judy realizes that is pretty much the definition of unexciting, she pretends to her friends that it will be an adventure! And it almost is: She goes on a treasure hunt, put on by a real pirate (Jared Mack, having a blast as Scurvy Sam).

Forest Grove sophomore Grace Malloy plays Judy perfectly: You believe she’s actually still a kid – her physical demeanor and even the way she speaks are spot-on – and she has a knack for subtle but hilarious physical comedy. Her brother, Stink (played by sixth-grader Ethan Thompson), is adorable but on opening night was a little difficult to hear, even though the whole cast was using body microphones. (The opening night performance had a couple of delays or glitches in mics going on and off, but these are kinks they will have worked out in the first couple of shows).

Kickin’ it: Ethan Thompson as Stink and Grace Malloy as Judy Moody. Photo: Owen Carey

Scenic/Lighting Designer Daniel Meeker did masterful work creating sets that could move apart and transform before your eyes – a boat the family takes to the island, for example, soon becomes the island’s boardwalk. This keeps things moving quickly, since the show continues to go on during set changes.

Despite the many things the show has going for it, a couple of things work against it. The plot lacks excitement for a children’s play: While Judy and Scurvy Sam are funny – as are Judy’s parents, played by Conor Eifler and Karen J. Moore – a treasure hunt isn’t exactly riveting to watch play out on stage. In the books, we are a little more inside Judy’s head, which is hard to capture on stage, no matter how hard playwright Gregory, director Foote, and Malloy as Judy try. This leads to restless moments for the younger members of the audience; at times on opening night the rustling of little hands, bodies, and playbills was more noticeable than the action onstage.

Parents of children under 4 might want to wait to take their kids to Pete the Cat in January. Even older children might find themselves a little bored in the middle. My patient 5-year-old turned to me about 50 minutes through the production – which ran 1 hour, 15 minutes on opening night – and said, “This is really long!” In the end, she and her younger sister both found it enjoyable, as did everyone I heard reacting in the lobby afterward (many lined up to meet the cast).

If you see Judy Moody & Stink, try not to let the notion of a grand undertaking by seven theater companies raise your expectations into the clouds. Go into it seeking nothing more than a delightful little show from Portland’s long-running children’s theater company, with a few hiccups but more heartfelt performances and amusing moments, and you will get exactly what you were hoping to find.

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For a review from my 5-year-old and 4-year-old, see: https://www.instagram.com/p/BavAeB3nslJ/

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Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt continues through Nov. 19 in the Newmark Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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