3:05 PM CST, January 23, 2013
If anyone calls the hero of Christopher Paul Curtis' Depression-era novel by the name of Buddy, not Bud, the 10-year-old orphan gets upset. His loving mom, who died a few years previously, always told him to insist he be called "Bud, not Buddy," an admonition of the kind that children remember — and from which Curtis took the title of his book.
"Bud, Not Buddy," which was penned in 2000, is the kind of work that engenders fierce loyalty (I read it only after seeing the Chicago Children's Theatre production based on the book). One could feel that from the audience at the Ruth Page Center for director Derrick Sanders' production. This is a story of an ordinary African-American boy — sent to an orphanage and challenging foster homes — who searches for his father, whom he is convinced is one Herman E. Calloway of Grand Rapids, a jazz musician who plays with a band known as the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, a fine name for a jazz band if ever there was one. Bud heads off for Grand Rapids, Mich., and is befriended by the band — but his parentage proves more complicated than he thought.
"Bud, Not Buddy" was adapted by Reginald Andre Jackson about seven years ago. It's a serviceable dramatization and, if you have a young person who loves this book, nothing I write here should stop you from taking him or her to a thoughtful and creative production that doubtless will be enjoyed.
For some reason, though, I found myself always wanting the Chicago Children's Theatre to communicate yet more intensely with its target audience, whom I felt deserved a fuller taste of the best of that this city's theater has to offer. "Bud, Not Buddy" is a solid piece of theater, but there are a couple of missed opportunities. One is the lack of live music in a show that is, after all, infused with the sounds of jazz — and this is Chicago. Actors miming the playing of their instruments might be more practical and cost-effective but it makes you crave the real thing.
The other issue is the choice of having Bud played by an adult actor. Travis Turner is a fine, young performer who does not condescend. But so often I see what kids of 10-12 years old can do on the stages of this city, and a real kid carries a kind of moral authority that does not carry over for an adult. This is, after all, a story of self-actualization — of getting on the road and finding out who you really might be.
That crucial arc does not command this production as it might. The production does offer a variety of amusing and poignant scenes with the help of such fine, vibrant actors as Cedric Mays, Tracey N. Bonner and Kamal Angelo Bolden, but somehow it does not help us yearn with the boy for his truth. That's partly an issue with the adaptation, but it's a theatrical imperative: Any kid needs to understand who made them and why.
When: Through Feb. 24
Where: Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20-$36 at 872-222-9555 or chicagochildrenstheatre.org
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC