Chicago Children’s Theatre’s new production, Last Stop on Market Street, is a sunny, colorful collage of music and dancing with some serious messages for kids and their adults. Director Henry Godinez manages to pack a lot of pleasure into the one-hour production with his lively direction.
CJ (Kei Rawlins, who alternates with Alejandro Medina) arrives to visit his Nana while his parents are away. He sings “Hello Goodbye” about his fears of being away from home. Nana (E. Faye Butler at her exuberant best) is CJ’s grandmother and she’s delighted that he has come to visit. CJ isn’t so sure. Nana’s neighborhood is noisy and a little scary to CJ, who is used to “being holed up in a house behind a gate,” as Nana describes it.
When they head out next morning, CJ asks why Nana doesn’t have a car. She replies, “Why do I need a car when every day all day a city bus that breathes fire comes by and takes me any and everywhere I wanna go. Plus, we’re about to have an adventure, meet some different people…”
Last Stop on Market Street is the story of a bus ride with its charismatic driver, Mr. Dennis (the always wonderful Breon Arzell, who I’m always pleased to find on a cast list) and an assortment of interesting passengers. Like Madame Butterly (Melanie Brezill); the Tat Man (Brian Keys); Mr. Vernon, a blind man with a guitar (the excellent Jesse Bhamrah); and teen girl softball players (Brezill and Kirra Silver). The four supporting actors play many roles, zipping on and off stage to music that ranges from hip-hop to Latin, but is always toe-tapping.
Nana’s surprise destination is in a poor neighborhood where CJ finds that it’s a pleasure to help others, whether it’s working in a soup kitchen or giving your favorite stuffed animal to your new friend, who happens to be homeless. By the end of the play, CJ also learns that a new neighborhood, new friends and experiences can be surprising and fun, even if they’re unfamiliar and a little scary at first.
The play is adapted by Cheryl L. West from Matt de la Pena’s award-winning book of the same name. It’s a co-commission with Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. The original score is by Lamont Dozier and Paris Ray Dozier. Music is arranged and directed by Andra Velis Simon with sound design by Ray Nardelli. Choreography is designed by Stephanie Paul. John Musial’s scenic design sets the wide CCT stage with a series of panels that turn from being homes and shops in Nana’s neighborhood to muraled walls as they travel. The ingenious bus is literally created on stage on a wheeled platform with poles, hanging grips, a farebox and benches added. Izumi Inaba’s costumes are suitably colorful and amusing.
The theater notes that Last Stop on Market Street is meant for all ages but probably best for 6 years and up. The audience at the opening weekend performance seemed to be mostly 3- and 4-year-olds and their adults. Even though some of the storyline and messaging may have been over their heads, the kids were quiet and attentive. This should make you happy if you think that only a screen can mesmerize a child.
Last Stop on Market Street continues through May 27 at Chicago Children’s Theatre, 100 S. Racine at the Station in the West Loop. You can choose from five weekend performances; school matinees are Tuesday-Friday. Buy tickets for $35 here or call 312-374-8835.