Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The one-act musical is based on the 2016 Newberry Award and Caldecott Honors winning book written by Matt de la Peña with illustrations by Christian Robinson. However, the book, charming and uplifting as it is, is just a starting point for the play. Playwright Cheryl L. West has taken a slight storyline and spun from it a rich, atmospheric urban world, as well as a relatable conflict between its main characters.
Seven-year-old CJ has been left with his Nana in her diverse urban neighborhood, while his parents take a trip together. Nana lives far from CJ's home so the two have not spent much time together. She is thrilled to have him there; he is decidedly not. He immediately misses his parents and dog, is aghast at the bold colors and noise, and is sure he will be bored with nothing to do. When Nana tries to reassure him that it's only for a week, he shoots back "Four days! Only four days!" and then begins to count down the hours in the opening song, "96 Hours," even as Nana and her neighbors extend a warm welcome to him.
CJ responds to Nana's request for a little sugar (a goodnight kiss) by naively telling her to look in the kitchen. Nana erupts in her booming, effusive laugh at this and at his other signs of remove from his own roots, offending CJ, who thinks she is being mean. The real conflict arises when Nana takes away his cell phone and game device, so he can spend his time with her and not his technology. He becomes disrespectful, demanding she give them back, but she is resolved to teach her grandson some things about life. Downcast, CJ sings his mother's special goodnight song to himself, in Spanish. Nana listens at the door, pleased to hear CJ reveal his tender heart in the language of his people.
Nana's lesson comes in the form of a bus ride across town. CJ fears the bus and its passengers, among them a strangely dressed woman who talks to an imaginary companion, a scary looking guy with tattoos, and a blind man. The affable bus driver reaches out to put CJ at ease, and eventually he learns that once he gets to know these people they are not scary at all. The bus stops at a soup kitchen where Nana volunteers. CJ cries out that it is a stupid thing to do, aghast at the graffiti and piles of trash on the street, but with Nana's coaching, he learns that what looks bad can conceal an abundance of beauty. CJ still has some things to learn before he is able to fully realize the joy to be had "Servin' Up Love."
Cheryl L. West has had her work mounted on a multitude of stages, including Broadway. Her dialogue captures the cadence of natural speech, especially in the exchanges between CJ and his Nana. Lamont Dozier is a legend of Motown, writing hit after hit for The Supremes, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and others. Dozier and his son, up and coming composer Paris Ray Dozier, have composed a tuneful score for Last Stop on Market Street that captures the different sounds of urban life, from gospel to rap to jazz to a lullaby with a Latino twist to full-out pop. True, none of the songs are especially memorable, but they contribution mightily to establishing the urban setting and the uplifting tone of the musical.
To deliver them, legendary Twin Cities music director Sanford Moore leads a four-piece band that puts heart and soul into the music. Ashley Selmer's choreography provides lively, well-executed dances that energize the production in balance with the more dramatic scenes between CJ and Nana. In "96 Hours," Selmer's dance reflects the Latino heritage of this imaginary neighborhood; in "Praise the Lord," the jubilant cast sing and dance away their troubles; in "Whatcha Lookin' At?," a tough looking man uses dance to reveal his good heart; and in "Beat of Life", the community celebrates potential in each of us.
Henry Godinez expertly directs the traffic on Market Street, keeping it all moving at a lively pace, but allowing time for the feelings that give the show so much heart to be fully expressed. He combines the gifts of the powerhouse creative team, brilliant designers and exuberant performers, to cast a bright, sunny shine over the production. Courtney O'Neil's set greets us with a cheerful-looking city block, kin to Sesame Street. It then swings to reveal the interior quarters of Nana's home, moves it all away to allow a city bus to cruise down Market Street, and then brings forth the tumble-down, unloved part of town that houses the soup kitchen. It is work like this that reveals the magic of theater, especially to young audiences, eyes wide open, at Children's Theater. Trevor Bowen's costumes fully suit their characters, with extra kudos for the stunning costume Autumn Ness wears as the eccentric Madame Butterfly. Marcus Doshi's lighting moves us through the hours as CJ counts them down, turning day to dusk to dark of night, then renewing hope with a brilliant dawn.
Greta Oglesby brings her gorgeous voice and classy acting chops to everything she does, and she imbues Nana with the love within a grandma's heart, the patient faith of a good churchgoer, the grit to stick with what she knows is right even if it turns someone she loves against her, and a joyful countenance that enables her to see all around her the beauty and delight that goes unseen by others. Alejandro, though still in middle school, has been a busy actor on Twin Cities stages for years. He has appeared at Children's Theater Company in Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and The Abominables, as well as at the Guthrie Theater, Minnesota Opera, and in a scene-stealing role at Theater Latté Da's world premiere Five Corners last spring. He has a beautiful, full singing voice that conveys the emotion content of his songs, he acts with conviction, holding his own in every scene with accomplished pro Oglesby, and his dancing is amazing: he never misses a beat, moves with exceptional grace, and puts his whole heart into every move, as if dancing is keeping him alive. He is a bonafide, triple-threat first-rate star.
These two star performers have a superb ensemble working with them. Ansa Akyea is lovely (not a word usually associated with the hulking actor) as the jovial and kind bus driver. Autumn Ness creates a touching portrait of a woman delightfully on the edge of reality as Madam Butterfly and a salt-of-the earth survivor of life's hardships as Grandma Posey. Dwight Leslie scores big in two high-energy dance numbers, as the Tatted Man ("Whatcha Lookin' At?") and again as blind Vernon ("Seeds of Life"). Calvin Zimmerman is touching as JoJo, the boy who teaches CJ about being a friend and to appreciate everything we have. Kennedy Lucas does a fine job, joining with Zimmerman as two teenagers in another of the lively dance pieces.
Last Stop on Market Street is a winning show that entertains, impresses with its stagecraft, and moves the heart. It has something to say about the assumptions sometimes made about those who seek help at food pantries, soup kitchens and shelterssome of the same assumptions that CJ made. He was fortunate to have a Nana who opened his eyes. We are fortunate to have Children's Theatre Company do the same thing for our community's theatergoers, young and old alike. One last thing: you absolutely don't need to be in the company of a child to enjoy this first-rate production.
Last Stop on Market Street, through October 21, 2018, at at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 - $64.00. $15.00 rush tickets go on sale two hours before each performance. Discounts are available daily for children up to age 17, full time college students, seniors (65+) and military families. For tickets call 612-874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Best enjoyed by age 8 and up.
Playwright: Cheryl L. West, based on the book written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson; Music and Lyrics: Lamont Dozier and Paris Ray Dozier; Director: Henry Godinez; Choreography: Ashley Selmer; Music Direction: Sanford Moore; Scenic Design: Courtney O'Neil; Costume Design; Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi; Sound Designer: Sten Severson; ; Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom; Assistant Choreographer: Corey Bozeman; Associate Lighting Designer: Craig Gottschalk; Assistant Lighting Designer: Alex Clark; Assistant Sound Designer: Dustin Morache; Acting Coach: H. Adam Harris.
Cast: Ansa Akyea (Mr. Dennis/ensemble), Dwight Lucas (Tatted Man/Vernon/Mr. Chow/ensemble), Kennedy Lucas (Dancing Teen/ensemble), Autumn Ness (Madam Butterfly/Grandma Posey/ensemble), Greta Oglesby (Nana), Alejandro Vega (CJ), Calvin Zimmerman (Dancing Teen/JoJo/ ensemble).