Bud, Not Buddy | Stage review

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<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5


For kids who are fed a steady cultural diet of fantasy, sci-fi and superheroes, discovering a story set very much in the real world with real kids should be a refreshing palette cleanser. That’s what Chicago Children’s Theatre is now serving with Bud, Not Buddy, a period-piece adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis’s Newbery-winning novel. Set during the era of the Great Depression and the rise of jazz, the play follows ten-year-old Bud (played with charm and ease by Travis Turner), a Michigan orphan since his mother’s death four years ago. But he doesn’t believe he’s an orphan: He’s sure his father is out there, somewhere.

After a particularly unpleasant experience at a foster home (which concludes with our mischievous protagonist extracting a hilariously just revenge on a bully, which will crack up a young audience), Bud decides to run away and find his dad. Using clues he keeps in a battered old suitcase filled with his mom’s precious possessions—some flyers about a man named Herman Calloway and his band, a cryptic collection of rocks—he makes his way to meet Mr. Calloway in Grand Rapids, where a new fate awaits, one that heralds the redemptive power of art and music.

The fine ensemble cast keeps things humming, with an especially warm turn from Genevieve VenJohnson as Miss Thomas, the band's singer and the woman who becomes Bud's mother figure. (A former vocalist for a jazz band, it's VenJohnson's clarion voice we hear during one musical sequence, which features prerecorded original music from sound designer Rick Sims.) And the actors who make up the onstage Calloway band look smashing in their period duds, courtesy of Christine Pascual.

Director Derrick Sanders and scenic designer Courtney O’Neill have made a wall disappear from the back of the Ruth Page Center stage, which gives the action even more depth, literally and figuratively, as it plays out on an enormous wooden ramp. Some deep emotions around parenting, poverty, racism and grieving will grab the grown-ups in the audience, while Turner’s smile-inducing asides keep things relatable for kids eight and up. (Although a nicely compact 85 minutes, no intermission, the show's themes are either too mature or too "boring" for the younger set.)

And even when the dialogue might seem like a stumbling block for students, given the "ancient" era of the 1930s being depicted on stage, this adaptation turns some of the dialogue into narration, keeping things clear. And of course, CCT provides a handsome program, filled with facts about the era, a glossary and some activities to engage your kids after the show.

Chicago Children's Theatre's Bud, Not Buddy runs through February 24 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N Dearborn St. Check the theater's site for details about tickets, including the Thursday-night pizza parties and the special Friday-night shows, which will include live performances from high-school jazz bands beforehand. Also, author Christopher Paul Curtis is in town this weekend for the show's opening, making a special appearance Monday for Martin Luther King Day.


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