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A children’s book inspired by SoCal receives the musical treatment at South Coast Repertory

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In a scene from a play, two people sit on a curb.
Karole Foreman as Nana and Christopher Mosley as C.J. in South Coast Repertory’s “Last Stop on Market Street.”
(Jenny Graham / South Coast Repertory)

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

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

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“I think it will be fun for people to see all the little things we’ve thrown in to really make it specific,” says director Oanh Nguyen. “Literally, my scenic designer and I drove around Santa Ana, just drove around with our cameras taking pictures. We were like, ‘There’s Nana’s house,’ and we pretty much built Nana’s house.” He pauses, laughing. “We should go back and knock on that person’s door and be like, ‘Do you want to see the stage version of your house?’”

The book itself doesn’t specify the city where the character of Nana and her 7-year-old grandson, C.J., ride the bus after church one rainy Sunday. The fellow passengers who, with Nana’s help, open C.J.’s eyes to the charms of his urban neighborhood, could live in more or less any metropolis. But author Matt de la Peña, a Southern California native, says that he had Los Angeles in mind as he wrote the book.

“I moved to Los Angeles right after graduate school in San Diego,” says De la Peña. “And I bought a used car, and then we found out it was stolen, so they took it away from me. So for four years, the bus was how I got around. And I wanted to explore that community in Southern California, of who rides the bus and how there’s so much beauty there, and yet all the people who are driving in their cars don’t recognize it. Magical things happen on the bus.”

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

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

Playwright Cheryl L. West (“Shout Sister Shout!”), a Chicago native now based in Seattle, was commissioned to adapt the brief, allusive text — only about 800 words — into a full-fledged musical. “Doing a picture book and writing something that’s going to hold interest for 75 minutes onstage is very different,” she says. “And how to expand it but keep the charm of the story was the challenge. For me it was rethinking, ‘Why today is this little boy so dissatisfied?’ The book has it that this was his environment all the time. I thought, what if we take a fish-out-of-water approach?”

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So the musical’s C.J. is a kid from the suburbs visiting his grandmother in the city for the first time. “That gave me more of an arc for him,” West explains. “Children 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 vibrant world of all different types of people that this little boy had a lot of judgment about, but in learning about them he expands his heart.”

The cross-generational aspect of the story appealed to the songwriters, Lamont and Paris Ray Dozier, who hail from different generations themselves as father and son, respectively. Lamont is a singer, songwriter and producer not infrequently referred to as a Motown legend. (His partnership in the 1960s with Brian and Eddie Holland, Holland-Dozier-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 pining for musical theater — although as a rising hip-hop artist he did keep hearing from music industry executives that his work was “too theatrical.” He’d been besotted with gangster rap in the 1980s and ’90s. “Eminem had this kind of theatrical thing about him,” he says. “He’d rap in different character voices. His rhymes were very clever and multi-syllable. 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. Damn, this guy doesn’t even realize he’s as dope as the modern rappers.’”

The first musical the Doziers scored together was Chicago Children’s Theatre’s production of “Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money” in 2014. Lamont initially got the commission. 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 pair brought their sensibilities together into what Paris describes as “a nice little hodgepodge of sounds” combining Motown and hip-hop with gospel and Afro-Cuban musical elements.

Asked if he’d agree with a description of “Last Stop” as “‘Hamilton’ for kids,” director Nguyen suggests that the musical is “more ‘In the Heights’ for kids,” citing the 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 C.J. and Nana — which Nana wins. So all the performers, including the actor playing the grandmother, had to be able to rap persuasively in addition to singing and dancing and even, on occasion, playing instruments. Except for C.J. and Nana, all the actors play multiple roles.

“The cast is mostly people of color,” Nguyen says. “When we started casting the show, as odd as it might sound at this moment in time, there’s so much opportunity now for POC artists — which is fantastic — that nobody had availability. Everybody was working.” But with a little logistical ingenuity, schedules lined up.

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The final hurdle was finding the right adult to play 7-year-old C.J. Nguyen received tons of résumés from wonderful performers who were 6 feet 2 or taller. “People were like, ‘Well, what about this guy? He’s only 5-11,‘” he says. The C.J. they ultimately cast, Christopher Mosley, is still taller than “most of the cast,” Nguyen notes.

“We had so much fun figuring out ways to keep him shorter 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'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center, Costa Mesa.
When: 2 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Ends Jan. 23.
Tickets: $34-$38 kids; $40-$44 adults
Info: scr.org, (714) 708-5555

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