Review by Kelly Romack MacBlane; photos by Charles Osgood
About a year ago, I stumbled across The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena at my son’s book fair. I had recently been reading an article about how to add more diversity to my children’s reading collection and this book was highly recommended, so I quickly purchased it. After just one reading, it became my favorite book to read to my 3 and 6-year-old sons at bedtime. So when the opportunity presented itself to see the Chicago Children’s Theater production, I jumped on it!
It is been a long time since I have attended professional children’s theater and I, of course, had to bring the best critic along, my 6-year-old son. We arrived too close to show time to play with the toys in the lobby or color on the tables, but the children waiting to see the show seemed to be having a great time.
The theater was very small and intimate with only three rows of seats which though designed for children, were still comfortable for the hour-long show. As we waited, I noticed how well the backdrop of houses matched the illustrations from the book drawn by Christian Robinson. My son asked why there were cracks between the houses so we speculated on different reasons why as we listened to the D.J. on stage play kid-friendly, lyricless but upbeat hip hop music.
The lights dimmed and the show began with a burst of energy as we were introduced to the main character, C.J. (played by Alejandro Medina at the performance we attended) who is being left at his Nana’s (E. Faye Butler) house while his parents are out of town. The ensemble of people who might be seen on a busy city street sang and danced around us as young C.J. rapped about his fears of being with his Nana and away from his parents for so long.
The first 25 minutes set up the conflict between C.J., who is portrayed as very spoiled, and his loving and compassionate Nana who is always able to see the beauty in everything and everybody. This may be the only complaint about the show my son and I had…the first half does not follow the book at all and I even heard one young audience member ask his mom “when it would be like the story.”
However, as Nana and C.J. get on the bus to travel to the last stop on Market Street, my son and I became totally engrossed. Henry Godinez’s directing and John Musial’s set design keeps the action moving and holds everyone’s attention no matter how young or old. Just like the book, Nana and C.J. meet a variety of different people both on and off the bus including the Butterfly Lady (Melanie Brezill), Mr. Dennis (Breon Arzell) the bus driver, and our favorite, Tat Man (Brian Keys). The songs vary in style throughout incorporating rap, ballads, gospel and even traditional “showtune” style music.
At the end of the story, Medina’s C.J. has been transformed by his experience and embraced Nana’s saying that “Different doesn’t mean bad.” There were so many really important lessons about diversity, fearing what is different, families and love, and even homelessness woven throughout the musical. Most are delivered by Butler’s Nana in a way that the smallest children can understand while at the same time, striking a chord with the adults in the audience (I must admit, I teared up at the end).
As we left the theater, my son and I couldn’t stop talking about what we had just seen. We decided we have to bring his 3-year-old brother back and maybe even his 9-year-old brother, too (though I think the best age range for this show is about 3-7). My son loved how the “cracks in the set” mentioned earlier were so the houses could be transformed to the graffiti-covered buildings on Market Street and also thought it was cool how the ensemble members played different characters throughout the production. We will probably be going back and I would recommend anyone who is looking to introduce their child to live theater to see this production before it closes.
Last Stop on Market Street is now playing at Chicago Children’s Theatre, 100 S. Racine, until May 27. Performance times vary; check the website at Chicago Children’s Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.