Chicago Public School second-graders witness a theatrical version of the much-loved children’s series.
Last Friday, 500 second-grade Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students crowded into the auditorium of the Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower Place to see a special, preview performance of Mary Pope Osborne’s recently adapted, The Magic Tree House #42: A Good Night for Ghosts. At the same time, nearly 15,000 more CPS second graders were preparing to watch the event as it was live-streamed to their classrooms. This production was the result of an enormous collaboration, initiated by Emerald City Theatre, an award-winning children’s theater in Chicago, and Mary Pope Osborne, herself a longtime literacy advocate for children, in an effort to raise reading achievement in Chicago Public Schools.
The collaboration was in part inspired by recent data that 50 percent of CPS third-grade students are not reading at grade level. Along with Chicago Public Library, KPMG—Family for Literacy, and Random House Children’s Books, the team aims to support educators and students by donating 30,000 copies of A Good Night for Ghosts, one for every CPS second-grader and an additional 3,000 to Chicago Public Library for its summer reading program, Rahm’s Readers Summer Learning Challenge. Actors from Magic Tree House will visit 30 Chicago Library branch locations through the summer. At the performance, Osborne was awarded Emerald City’s One Fund Arts Education Award for her service to children. You can read more about this remarkable undertaking here.
The musical, adapted by Mary’s husband, Will Osborne, sees the Magic Tree House’s child protagonists, Annie and Jack (played by Sydney Sarah Stier and Garrett Lutz, respectively), travel back in time with their tree-house transport to 1915 New Orleans, where Louis Armstrong was getting his start by playing on street corners and in riverboat bands. When Annie and Jack meet him, he doesn’t have much time for music because he is working countless odd jobs to make ends meet. Annie and Jack help Louis shovel coal, deliver enormous bushels of bananas, and wash dishes, while urging him to follow his musical talent and perform. After a close encounter with a ghost and a sneak peak into his future (thanks to the book from the tree house), Louis accepts his destiny as the “King of Jazz” and decides to get started, setting off for his riverboat band.
A vibrant musical score, created by the late jazz legend Allen Toussaint, brings the script to magical, New Orleanian life, and a three-person chorus (Charli Williams, David Robbins, and Trequon Tate) who are interchangeably street vendors, Louis’ friends, and carnival partiers, fill in the vocals with verve. In one scene where a thunderstorm threatens, Louis (played by the impressive vocalist Gilbert Domally) sings a chilling song about the “winds down south.” For older audience members, I’m sure it reads as a nod to Katrina or any of New Orleans’ devastating storms, but the song was also a welcome pause amid the constant, frenetic energy children’s shows often employ to keep the attention of younger audience members.
There were a few other moments reflecting the ambition of this production regarding cultural sensitivity. One was a cautionary song about peer pressure (Louis had been arrested for firing a gun at the urging of his friends) and the other concerns segregation. At the end of the play, right before Louis discovers he is to be the “King of Jazz,” he starts to leave Annie and Jack, headed for the train. They want to ride with him but he looks at them forlornly, saying, “don’t you know, we can’t sit together.” Annie and Jack are completely ignorant of this not only because they’re from a different century but also probably because, well, they’re white.
They reassure Louis that someday white people and black people will be able to sit next to each other on the train and that there will even be a black president elected (“Twice!” Jack shouts, eliciting chortles from the audience). This will make a great opportunity for classroom discussion, though as it comes at the end of the play and is rather abrupt, some may feel the issue of race is somewhat brushed to the side. Still, The Magic Tree House: A Night in New Orleans is sure to be a great time for fans of the series or those gearing up for a summer of reading. With audience interaction, and actors popping out of side doors and in and out of the aisles, youngsters will be entertained throughout.
The production runs through April 17. Find ticketing info at http://www.emeraldcitytheatre.com.