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“Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money” a heartfelt musical romp for kids of many ages
The ideal way to see any show by Chicago Children’s Theatre is to join the packed houses for school groups that arrive on big yellow buses for the 10 a.m. weekday performances. The full house I joined Friday morning for the wholly beguiling world premiere production of “Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money,” came with the added bonus of two special guests.
One was Christopher Paul Curtis, the Newberry Award-winning author from Flint, Michigan, who quickly became a fan-magnet for a bevy of the adoring elementary school kids who have read his many books, including the two about Mr. Chickee.
The other was Lamont Dozier, the legendary Motown songwriter who, with his son, Paris Dozier, has created the score for the show — a beguiling collection of 11 instantly catchy songs that, in their clever, understated way, supply a brief history of pop music styles from the 1950s to the present, with the sound of everything from doo-wop, soul and r & b to hip hop. (If the tots in the audience at the Ruth Page Center hadn’t heard about Dozier, the teachers, mothers and other adults there surely had, and Curtis also bowed to the man who penned more than 50 hit songs during his Motown days.)
Set in Flint, “The Vehicle City” that has fallen on hard times in recent years, Curtis’ smart, witty book (winningly adapted for the stage by David Ingber), tells the story of three crucial days in the life of Steven (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, all seriousness and determination), an essentially sweet, smart, enterprising and periodically sad 10-year-old.
Under the deft, deceptively hands-off tutelage of the blind, avuncular street singer, Mr. Chickee (played with a wink by Yaw Agyeman), Steven learns to appreciate his rather strict, neatnik dad, Elmwood (a most engaging Bear Bellinger), and his yoga-and-vegan-savvy mom, Lynetta (Alexis J. Rogers). He also learns to be more generous with his challenging friends: Richelle (the multitalented Ashley Elizabeth Honore, a genuine firecracker), the super-smart 4th grade feminist already thinking about college scholarships, and Russell (the easily engaging Travis Turner), a serious lover of peanut butter.
Another crucial lesson Mr. Chickee teaches Steven has to do with money — the worries that come with a lack of it, and the selfishness and consumerism that can come with possessing it. All this is set in motion after the older man gives him a mysterious quadrillion-dollar bill bearing an unfamiliar portrait (it’s James Brown).That paper currency becomes the focus of a pursuit led by a trio of wildly inep† local detectives, including Agent Fondoo (Brian Gray is hilarious), and his boss, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (Rogers, in late Diana Ross mode).
Adding to the fun here is Mr. Chickee’s giant, dreadlock-haired dog, Zoopy (Sam Deutsch often steals the spotlight). But even Zoogy is eclipsed by the guys in giant Afros and purple jackets who work the floor.
Smoothly directed by Derrick Sanders, with period-perfect choreography by Kevin Iega Jeff and music direction by Ethan Deppe, “Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money” is funky rather than preachy, and invariably full of heart. It is sure to delight both the estimated 4000 kids expected to see it during its run here, and the parents lucky enough to come along for the ride.
‘MR. CHICKEE’s FUNNY MONEY’
When: Through March 2
Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25-$28 (children); $38 (adults)
Info: (872) 222-9555; www.ChicagoChildren’s Theatre.org
Run time: 75 minutes with no intermission