Newbery-winning “Last Stop on Market Street” takes a tour of SoCal

Karole Foreman as Nana and Christopher Mosley as CJ in South Coast Repertory’s “Last Stop on Market Street.”

(Jenny Graham / South Coast Directory)

Traveling is an unsettling prospect these days, but Orange County families attending “Last Stop on Market Street” at the South Coast Repertory, the company’s first in-person theater offering for young audiences in two years, may be surprised at how at home they feel.

Through Jan. 23, this production of the hip-hop and Motown-infused musical, adapted for the stage from a 2015 Newbery Medal-winning picture book, is set in Santa Ana.

“I think it will be fun for people to see all the little things we added to make it really specific,” director Oanh Nguyen said. “Literally, my set designer and I walked around Santa Ana, we just walked around with our cameras taking pictures. We were like, ‘There’s Nana’s house,’ and we practically building Nana’s house. He stops laughing. “We should go back and knock on this person’s door and say, ‘Do you want to see the stage version of your house?'”

The book itself does not specify the town where Nana’s character and her 7-year-old grandson, CJ, take the bus after church on a rainy Sunday. The fellow travelers who, with Nana’s help, open CJ’s eyes to the charms of his urban neighborhood, could call just about any metropolis home. But author Matt de la Peña, originally from Southern California, says he had Los Angeles in mind when he wrote the book.

“I moved to Los Angeles right after graduating from San Diego,” says De la Peña. “And I bought a used car and then we found out it was stolen so they took it from me. So for four years the bus was my way of getting around. And I wanted to explore this Southern California community, knowing who rides the bus and how much beauty there is there, and yet not all the people driving around in their cars recognize it. Magical things happen on the bus.

The book’s illustrator, Christian Robinson, grew up in Los Angeles, but was living in San Francisco when he got the job, which could perhaps explain the ineffable 415 vibe of his award-winning art.

In 2018, when the Chicago Children’s Theater and the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company teamed up to turn “Last Stop” into a musical, its landscape became more Midwestern — and eclectic, as members of the creative team brought different influences. to the story. “One of the things I’ve learned the most over the years is to actively make room for other creatives to do what they do best,” says De la Peña. “Whether it’s a reader, an illustrator or an adapter, I want to let a creative person take it in the direction they want to go, and maybe it something new will come out of it that I never thought of.”

Chicago-native and now Seattle-based playwright Cheryl L. West (“Shout Sister Shout!”) was commissioned to adapt the brief, allusive text — only about 800 words — into a full-fledged musical. “Making a picture book and writing something that’s going to hold your attention for 75 minutes on stage is very different,” she says. “And how to expand it while keeping the charm of the story was the challenge. For me it was rethinking, ‘Why today is this little boy so unhappy? The book says that was his environment the whole time. I thought to myself, what if we took a fish out of water approach? »

Thus, the musical’s CJ is a suburban kid visiting his grandmother in town for the first time. “It gave me more arc for him,” West says. “Kids can be very judgmental, and I think it’s important for them to understand that different doesn’t mean bad. So we created this tapestry, this really dynamic world of all the different types of people that this little boy had a lot of judgment about, but learning about them expands his heart.

The intergenerational aspect of the story appealed to songwriters, Lamont and Paris Ray Dozier, who themselves come from different generations as father and son, respectively. Lamont is a singer, songwriter and producer often called a Motown legend. (His 1960s partnership with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Brian and Eddie Holland produced an astonishing catalog of hits, including “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go” and “You Can’ t Hurry Love”. . ”

Paris didn’t grow up nostalgic for musical theater – although as a rising hip-hop artist, he kept hearing music industry executives say his work was “too theatrical”. He had been fascinated by gangster rap in the 80s and 90s. “Eminem had this sort of theatrical thing about him,” he says. “He was rapping with different character voices. His rhymes were very clever and multisyllabic. And then I heard ‘A Little Night Music’ by Stephen Sondheim. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, he was doing in the 70s what Eminem is doing now. Shit, this dude doesn’t even realize he’s as dumb as modern rappers.

The first musical the Doziers wrote together was the Chicago Children’s Theater production of “Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money” in 2014. Lamont got the commission first. Then the theater put out an open call for writers to contribute hip-hop numbers, and Paris anonymously sent in a tape — and got the job. This time around, for “Last Stop,” the duo brought their sensibilities together in what Paris describes as “a nice little hodgepodge of sounds” combining Motown and hip-hop with gospel and Afro-Cuban musical elements.

When asked if he’d agree with a description of ‘Last Stop’ as ”Hamilton’ for kids”, director Nguyen suggests the musical is ‘more ‘In the Heights’ for kids. “, citing hip-hop and spoken word elements. and multicultural neighborhood setting of the hit musical and its recent film adaptation. He adds that the talent required to pull off the performances made casting a challenge. A highlight of the score is a rap battle between CJ and Nana – which Nana wins. Thus, all of the performers, including the actor playing the grandmother, had to be able to rap convincingly in addition to singing and dancing and even, on occasion, playing an instrument. Except for CJ and Nana, all the actors play multiple roles.

“The cast is mostly made up of people of color,” Nguyen says. “When we first started launching the series, as strange as it might seem at the time, there are so many opportunities now for POC artists – which is fantastic – that no one had availability. Everyone everyone was working, but with a little logistical ingenuity, the schedules aligned.

The final hurdle was finding the right adult to play Seven-year-old CJ Nguyen received tons of resumes from wonderful performers who were 6ft2 or taller. “People were like, ‘Well, what about this guy? He’s only 5-11,’ he says. The head judge they ultimately chose, Christopher Mosley, is still taller than “most actors,” Nguyen notes.

“We had so much fun finding ways to keep it smaller than everyone else,” he says. “Because you can’t really look up to a person and say, ‘Hello, little man!’ You can tell me if what we did works.

“Last Stop on Market Street”

Or: South Coast Directory, 655 Town Center, Costa Mesa.
When: 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Ends January 23.
Tickets: children from $34 to $38; $40-$44 adults
Information: scr.org, (714) 708-5555

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