By Barry Reszel
A word of advice to parents of 7-year-olds whose combined use of both smart phones and tablets is leaving them woefully unconnected to reality and downright rude to relatives and strangers alike:
Send your kids to spend 60 minutes with E. Faye Butler.
Yes, Butler’s daycare is exactly what they need, evidenced by the world premiere of Chicago Children’s Theatre’s musical, Last Stop on Market Street. Co-commissioned with with Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, this world premiere musical is based on the book by author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Christian Robinson that’s the winner of the 2016 Newbery Medal, a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.
In the one-hour musical version, adapted for the stage by acclaimed playwright Cheryl L. West, 7-year-old CJ is stuck for four days visiting his Cuban Nana in an urban environment, a world considerably different from the one he’s used to. Supported by seven songs from Motown music legend Lamont Dozier and Paris Ray Dozier, CJ’s reluctant bus journey to a soup kitchen ultimately helps him become a little more worldly, grateful and nice.
But it isn’t easy.
Butler and the talented adults in this cast (Melanie Brezill, Jesse Bhamrah, Brian Keys, Kirra Silver and Breon Arzell) perform a semi-Hurculean accomplishment just to get this CJ (Kei Rawlins at the reviewed performance) to stop whining. Perhaps their patient approach (50 minutes of an hour-long show) works for the kids at whom this show is aimed, but it leaves at least some adults who don’t currently have spoiled 7-year-olds in their lives believing old-world Nana is about 20 minutes too late from delivering an old-time spanking.
Thankfully, one of the coolest performers in Chicagoland keeps it together, guiding her young stage mate, along with his character, to avoid corporal punishment and receive his applause at the end of his ultimate (albeit abrupt) transformation.
All said, Director Henry Godinez‘s massively horizontal staging is quickly paced and the singing is fine (Butler’s big voice on “Praise the Lord” and the group number “Servin’ Up Love” are particularly excellent). So, too, a standout of this production is John Musial‘s colorful scenic design of a residential neighborhood that morphs in front of the audience’s eyes. Combined with Izumi Inaba‘s magnificent costumes, the presentation of de la Peña’s story is a veritable kaleidoscope.
With an acknowledgment that the key to all good theatre, particularly children’s theatre, lies behind the doors the key opens, Market Street is an excellent vehicle to discuss differences among races, cultures, ages, neighborhoods and socio-economic statuses. It might also start conversations about a little less screen time.
If that doesn’t work, send the kid for an hour with E. Faye. But be ready; word on the street is she’s pricey.
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents “Last Stop on Market Street” through May 27 at The Station, 100 S. Racine Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.