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‘Last Stop on Market Street’ takes a marvelous journey from page to stage

Alejandro Medina plays CJ (who rotates the role in various performances with Kei Rawlins) and E. Faye Butler is Nana in Chicago Children’s Theatre’s world premiere of "Last Stop on Market Street," a high-spirited musical about a grandmother who teaches her grandson how to find beauty on a routine Sunday afternoon bus ride through the city. | Charles Osgood

Here’s one of the marvels inherent to childhood: Your capacity for wonder is still boundless. The most mundane events and ordinary objects — a bus ride, a nightlight, a shopping cart – can take on seemingly magical properties. The bus becomes a fire-breathing dragon, the nightlight beams out a luminous parade of shadow animals, the shopping cart morphs into an amusement park ride. In the charming 2015 picture book “Last Stop on Market Street,” author Matt de la Pena and illustrator Christian Robinson succeed in bringing that wonderment to life.

It’s a tricky business, moving a beloved book from page to stage. But playwright Cheryl L. West and composer/lyricists Paris Ray Dozier and his father Lamont Dozier succeed with their world-premiere musical adaptation of de la Pena’s story, which celebrates the every day wonders of a bus ride across the city, with plenty of stops for adventure along the way.

‘Last Stop on Market Street’
When: Through May 27
Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre, 100 S. Racine
Tickets: $35
Info: chicagochildrenstheatre.org
Run time: 60 minutes, no intermission

Directed by Henry Godinez, the Chicago Children’s Theatre production is defined by its adventurous spirit, that glorious feeling that tends to dim as we get older and more sensible. “Last Stop on Market Street” is not a complicated show, but it is an exuberantly entertaining one. Its lack of guile is a balm in a world where cynicism and sarcasm are often mistaken for sophistication.

Kirra Silver (from left), Melanie Brezill, E. Faye Butler (as Nana), Kei Rawlins (as CJ) and Jesse Bhamrah in Chicago Children’s Theatre’s world premiere of Last Stop on Market Street. | Charles Osgood

The plot in de la Pena’s Caldecott Honor and Newbery Award-winning book is simple: When seven-year-old CJ (portrayed by Kei Rawlins at this performance; he alternates the role with Alejandro Medina) sullenly arrives at his Nana’s (E. Faye Butler) for a weekend away from home, he is moody and bossy. He is furious when Nana confiscates his phone and tablet. He whines that he wants his mommy and his electronics, not necessarily in that order. He is wholly unenthused when Nana insists they spend the day out and about. He condemns the homeless as “nasty, stinky-looking people.”

Over CJ’s bratty grousing, Nana steers him into the city. With the help of her neighborhood friends, he learns to check his judgment and connect with the world beyond his phone.

It’s the kind of plot that can turn treacly and/or infantile fast. Godinez’ ensemble avoids that by honoring the emotions that give the book its signature warmth and joy. The characters on stage are broad but believable, and at times, the bonhomie filling the space has the warmth of a welcome hug.

Then there’s the production’s not-so-secret weapon. That would be Butler, a songstress who for decades has been raising the roof and bringing the house down in musicals across the country. Butler has one of those rare voices born to belt, a voice that can nail a money note whether it’s a floor-shaking forte or a glimmering pianissimo.

Hearing Butler’s arena-worthy pipes unleashed in a space not much bigger than a well-appointed living room is thrilling. As the Doziers’ score moves from gospel to hip-hop to ballad and back again, Butler anchors the ensemble’s mighty vocals.

This isn’t solely Butler’s show, of course. The stage bustles with memorable performances. Chief among them: Breon Arzell as Dennis the bus driver and the sharply dressed DJ charged with keeping the beat moving through the production. Arzell has a smile that goes for days and the fleet-footed moves of someone fiercely at home with all manner of choreography executed in heels or sneakers.

As the much-inked “Tat Man,” Brian Keys has flair to spare, spitting rhymes with cool-cat charisma and fast-moving grace. Throughout, music director Andra Velis Simon and sound designer Ray Nardelli keep the words crisp and the music bouncing, most memorably when the cast creates a joyfully noisy rhythm section by banging on cookie sheets, cake pans and mixing bowls.

The production looks as terrific as it sounds thanks in large part to set designer John Musial’s brightly colored interpretation of Robinson’s kid-friendly illustrations. And Stephanie Paul’s choreography brings vibrancy to Nana’s neighborhood, a place alive with street performers and unexpected beauty.

“Last Stop on Market Street” is what children’s theater should be. It does not talk down to its audience. It is burgeoning with wonder. If you are a kid, you’ll giggle yourself silly. If you were once a kid, you just might remember what that felt like.

Catey Sullivan is a local greelance writer.

Volunteering at a soup kitchen teaches CJ (Alejandro Medina, left) important lessons about service and empathy im “Last Stop on Market Street” Also pictured (from left): Brian Steele, Jesse Bhamrah, E. Faye Butler (Nana), Melanie Brezill, Kirra Silver and Breon Arzell. | Charles Osgood