Review: Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

| January 29, 2014
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Bear Bellinger star in Chicago Children's Theatre's "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money," directed by Derrick Sanders. (photo credit: Charles Osgood)        
      
Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money

Music/Lyrics by Lamont Dozier and Paris Dozier
Book by David Ingber
Directed by Derrick Sanders
at Ruth Page Center, 1016 N. Dearborn (map)
thru March 2  |  tickets: $25-$38   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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Phenomenal cast, catchy Motown score make this a must-see

     

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis and Bear Bellinger in Chicago Children's Theatre's "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money," directed by Derrick Sanders. (photo credit: Charles Osgood)

    
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
    
Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money

Review by Oliver Sava

There’s nothing like a good children’s theater production to remind you of the magic of the stage. The best shows don’t only engage, entertain, and educate the kids in the audience, but force the adult viewers to look at the theater through a child’s eyes, recapturing that sense of imaginative wonder that diminishes with age. When an ensemble is fully committing to their all-ages material, it becomes easy to embrace totally absurd plot developments, and fun becomes the highest priority. Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money is one of those delightful productions, a musical with some spectacularly catchy songs, a wacky plot juggling a slew of different moral lessons, and a phenomenal cast that brings it all together with plenty of passion.

As a member of the songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland in the 1960s, Lamont Dozier helped define the Motown sound with the Holland brothers, working as a musical arranger and producer on classic tunes like “Heat Wave,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” For the new stage adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis’ children’s novel ”Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money,” Lamont partners with his son Paris to create a musical score that pays tribute to the Motown era but also feels fresh and contemporary, showing a remarkable understanding of modern-day R&B and hip-hop’s evolution from its roots in ’60s Detroit.

Dozier’s musical sensibility is a perfect fit for Curtis’ story, which follows a trio of pre-teen detectives in the economically struggling city of Flint, Michigan, as they investigate a one-of-a-kind quadrillion dollar bill with James Brown’s face on it. Set in an urban environment and revolving around how a group of characters deals with a sudden influx of income, the show plays like In The Heights by way of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown!, with the influence of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts shining through in the presence of a giant shaggy dancing dog named Zoopy (Sam Deutsch, doing some exquisite puppeteering).

Steven (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis), Richelle (Ashley Elizabeth Honore), and Russell’s (Travis Turner) investigation of the mysterious currency given to them by elderly blind man Mr. Chickee (Yaw Agyeman) puts them directly in the crosshairs of the federal government’s Agent Fondoo (Brian Grey), a self-absorbed doofus that makes for a hilarious villain. While egos threaten to tear the “Flint Future Detectives” apart, Steven’s relationship with his overbearing dad Elmwood (Bear Bellinger) is also taking a hit, so his mother Lynetta (Alexis J. Rogers) forces the two to spend some quality bonding time together. In just over an hour, this show looks at father-son relationships, friend drama, the importance of community service, the incompetence of bureaucracy, and the importance of belief for both individuals and societies. It’s a packed show, and it moves with incredible momentum thanks the Doziers’ spectacular music and the huge talent of the performers.

Alexis J. Rogers, Brian Grey and Jonathan Butler-Duplessis in Chicago Children's Theatre's "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money," directed by Derrick Sanders. (photo credit: Charles Osgood) Travis Turner and puppeteer Sam Deutsch in Chicago Children's Theatre's "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money," directed by Derrick Sanders. (photo credit: Charles Osgood)
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis in Mr. Chickees Funny Money at Chicago Childrens Theatre Bear Bellinger, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Travis Turner, Ashley Elizabeth Honore, Sam Deutsch
Yaw Agyeman in Chicago Children's Theatre's "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money," directed by Derrick Sanders. (photo credit: Charles Osgood) Yaw Agyeman and Jonathan Butler-Duplessis in Chicago Children's Theatre's "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money," directed by Derrick Sanders. (photo credit: Charles Osgood)

Butler-Duplessis got to show off his rap skills as Benny in Paramount’s In The Heights a few months ago, and he does similarly strong work here. His flow is matched by costars Honore and Agyeman, who both have moments that are so slick they left the audience cheering at my performance. Considering Lamont Dozier’s history, it’s not a surprise that the Motown-influenced songs are total earworms, but the hardness and grit of the rap bits is completely unexpected, and helps create a more contemporary sound. The drums during the “Flint Future Detectives” chant could be the instrumentals on a new Kanye West track, and the extra edge broadens the show’s appeal.

When it comes to the more traditional Motown pastiches, Rogers does a remarkable job combining squeaky and soulful during “Til It All Gets Better,” and her transformation into the nasal Lynetta is especially impressive considering how drastically different it is from her Jeff Award-winning turn as a strung-out Billie Holliday in Porchlight’s Lady Day last year. Bellinger channels the raw dynamism of James Brown for “Long Live The King,” a tribute to “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” and Gry’s feverish “I’m On the Case” immediately endears the audience to the play’s villain by making him a hyperactive dork. The story is silly fun, but the music is the major draw for Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money, with the Doziers’ delivering a memorable score that has this reviewer crossing his fingers for a future recording.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money continues through March 2nd at Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Tuesdays at 10am, Wednesdays 10am and 12:15pm, Thursdays 10am, Fridays 10am and 6:30pm, Saturdays 11am and 6pm, Sundays 11am.  Tickets are $25-$38, and are available by phone (872-222-9555) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ChicagoChildrensTheatre.org(Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission. Recommended for children 6 and up.)

Ashley Elizabeth Honore, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Travis Turner and Sam Deutsch in Chicago Children's Theatre's "Mr. Chickee's Funny Money," directed by Derrick Sanders. (photo credit: Charles Osgood)

Photos by Charles Osgood


     

artists

cast

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis (Steven), Bear Bellinger (Elmwood), Ashley Elizabeth Honore (Richelle), Elena Marisa Flores (Agent 2), Travis Turner (Russell, Agent 3), Brian Grey (Agent Fondoo), Yaw Agyeman (Mr. Chickee), Sam Deutsch (Zippy Puppeteer), Alexis J. Rogers (Lynetta, Madame Director)

behind the scenes

Derrick Sanders (director), Brian Usifer (musical supervision, orchestrations, musical arrangements). Ethan Deppe (music director), Kevin Iega Jeff (choreographer), ourtney O’Neill (scenic design), Rebecca Jeffords (lighting design), Ray Nardelli (sound design), Christine Pascual (costume design), Margaret Goddard-Knop (props design), Sam Deutsch (puppet design), Dennis Conners (production stage manager), Charles Osgood (photos).

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Category: 2014 Reviews, Chicago Children's Theatre, Children's Theatre, Musical, New Work, Oliver Sava, Ruth Page Theater, World Premier

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