By Jori Waldron
Based on the well-known series of books by Mary Pope Osborne, Emerald City Theatre’s newest production, Magic Tree House: A Night in New Orleans, brings a jazzy musical experience to young audiences.
The history of page to stage began when Osborne’s husband Will suggested she write a book featuring Louis Armstrong, one of his favorite musicians. Later, he offered to take that book and turn it into a musical for children. The result is a fabulous experience for young theatregoers and their fortunate chaperones.
The Osbornes were on hand to welcome audience members for the opening performance on March 19. The previous day the cast did a pre-run performance that was sent via webcast to every second grade classroom in the Chicago Public Schools. These children also all received a copy of one of the Magic Tree House novels.
The show gives children a fun-filled learning experience, transporting the audience to New Orleans where a 14-year-old Louis Armstrong as he struggles to decide if it’s worth it to pursue his musical career. The main characters of the books, Jack and Annie, go on a mission to encourage him to follow his dream. The songs teach children about the culture of New Orleans, featuring a song about gumbo, one about strong storms, and, of course, several about jazz music. The production also contains a poignant message about believing in yourself and doing what you love.
Like many productions geared for young audiences, the show lasted an hour and featured many upbeat numbers and strong, energetic dancing. For several reasons, the content of this show, is best suited for children ages five and older. First, they are the target audience of the book series. Also, the show includes a few scarier scenes, one featuring a storm and another with ghosts, which may frighten younger children.
The production’s small cast of six does a fabulous job. The three main characters, Jack (Garrett Lutz), Annie (Sydney Sarah Stier), and Louis Armstrong (Gilbert Domally) have amazing voices that harmonize beautifully. They also have an abundance of energy, rarely leaving the stage as they dance and sing their way through almost the entire hour. The backup chorus (Charli William, David Robbins, and Trequon Tate) occasionally exits the stage, often to do quick costume changes and the returning as different characters. Adults will appreciate the quality jazz sounds that resound from these talented performers. Similar to many of their children’s shows, the characters wander in and out of the audience, sometimes interacting with the crowd.
The costumes, though simple, are supplemented with a beautiful backdrop and varied lighting. The youthful cast also uses interesting props to add to the realism of life in New Orleans.
This show is well-worth the price of admission, and the whole family will enjoy the experience.
Broadway in Chicago presents Emerald City Theatre’s “Magic Tree House: A Night in New Orleans” through April 17 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E Chestnut St, Chicago. Tickets ($16-$27) are available by calling 800-775-2000 or online here.