Chicago Theatre Review
A Priceless, Peerless Production
Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money
Imagine someone giving you a piece of currency that bares the likeness of African-American R&B singer James Brown, the initials HWMISB and the denomination of 1 followed by fifteen zeros. Your reaction would be much the same as 10-year-old Steven’s in this jubilant musical for the entire family, based on Christopher Paul Curtis‘ award-winning children’s novel of the same name. Not knowing what to call Mr. Chickee’s strange bill or whether or not it’s even real, Steven, the president of the FFD (Flint Future Detectives), sets out to solve this case. With the assistance of co-detectives Richelle and Russell, Mr. Chickee’s giant rag mop dog Zoopy and a little help from his parents, Steven discovers what is really valuable in life. Whether outwitting evil National Treasury Agent Fondoo, learning about the Godfather of Soul or recognizing who’s “My Best Friend,” this terrifically entertaining 60-minute musical is a must-see.
With a book by David Ingber and music and lyrics by Motown’s Lamont and Paris Dozier, this musical is filled with memorable songs, entertaining artistry and sound performances. Yaw Agyeman is so likable as the kindly, blind Mr. Chickee, who’s not only the catalyst for the events in this play but also serves as narrator. Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, who starred as Benny in Paramount’s “In the Heights” and as the Ghost of Christmas Present in TATC’s musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” is Steven. Very convincing as an Encyclopedia Brown-like amateur sleuth, the actor brings honesty to his portrayal of this fourth-grader on a mission. His relationship with his two best friends, the astoundingly talented actress/singer/dancer Ashley Elizabeth Honore as Richelle and the sweetly sincere Travis Turner as Russell (seen in the title role of CCT’s “Bud, Not Buddy,” the Newbery Medal stage adaptation by the same author), is moving and sincere. Even Steven’s love for Mr. Chickee’s dog Zoopy (designed and portrayed to canine perfection by puppeteer Sam Deutsch) is truthful, heartwarming and provides this story’s moral.
Bear Bellinger and Alexis J. Rogers play Elmwood and Lynetta, Steven’s goofy parents, with truth and a good feel for comedy. Bellinger is a stern father and so terrific in his James Brown-inspired “Long Live the King,” while Ms. Rogers’ gospel number, “Til It All Gets Better” brings down the house. Her Eartha Kitt-like Director of the Treasury is also strong and hilarious, as well. Brian Grey brings a wealth of theatrical experience to his bumbling Agent Fondoo, but he really excels as a backup singer/dancer ensemble member.
Derrick Sanders has directed this piece with an obvious understanding of the juvenile novel from which this musical has been adapted and simplified, as well as a shrewd understanding of what will appeal to young audiences. Kevin Iega Jeff’s choreography is hot and sassy, providing just enough challenge and variety for his cast; and Ethan Deppe’s musical direction makes this Motown score that much more exciting.
A beautifully-written, professionally produced topnotch family entertainment, that just happens to promote positive values, can be found playing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts through early March. Especially aimed at grades 2-5, this delightfully melodic, high-energy musical play provides enough heat to warm Chicago audiences during these cold winter days.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 24-March 2 by Chicago Children’s Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 872-222-9555 or by visiting their website at www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.