Reviewed by Shelly Hoffman
After a week’s delay, Flint Youth Theatre’s Bud, Not Buddy opened Friday night to a sold out and boisterous audience. Adapted by Reginald Andre Jackson from the award winning children’s story by Flint native, Christopher Paul Curtis (who was in the audience Friday night), Bud, Not Buddy tells a Depression-era tale of a young Bud (played by Masai Clayborne) who is orphaned upon the death of his mother (Deirdre S. Baker). Bud runs away from an abusive foster family in Flint and heads to Grand Rapids in search of the father he never knew.
The scant clues Bud’s mother has left him include a poster for a performance by band leader Herman E. Calloway (Anthony Ennis) and some rocks with city names and dates written upon them. Bud’s quest is fraught with peril as he gets into fights, escapes from a shed he has been locked in, tries to walk across Michigan, stays in a Hooverville, and finds himself in Owosso after dark. His journey also brings joy as he has his first kiss, is picked up by a kindly man, and is embraced by a group of musicians.
The theatre, festooned with clotheslines that include sheets which later serve as projection screens, creates a welcoming atmosphere, with an intriguing set and wonderfully appropriate pre-show music.
The set, a series of shelves, doors, and cabinets, cluttered with symbols of Bud’s life and adventure, towers upstage. It is cleverly constructed and utilized, at one point even becoming a train (complete with a working smoke stack). As attractive as it is, the set was the cause Friday night for much alarm as a cello placed high upon it crashed to the ground.
At the helm of this production, which is executed with varying degrees of success, is director Alfred Bruce Bradley, who has assembled a sizeable cast to undertake Bud’s journey. The nature of this play, which moves quickly from location to location, calls for fluidity and this was sorely lacking. Missing are FYT’s signature graceful, precise, and expedient scene changes. They are replaced by unorganized and unnecessary movement of large, clunky pieces. This is somewhat ameliorated by Jeremy Winchester’s media design where old photos are projected onto the sheets hanging from the clotheslines to give the audience a sense of both place and time. Also adding to the sense of time are Amber Marisa Cook’s gorgeous costumes. The attention to detail in these is striking.
At times, this production felt more like a variety show than a stage play. A soft shoe routine has been inserted as have some live vocals (in two instances to cover those lengthy scene changes). While the dance is well executed and Gwen Pennyman-Hemphill’s singing is enchanting, both feel out of place. Ultimately, it seems Bud is far too demanding a role to place on the shoulders of such a young and inexperienced actor and, as such, the necessary cohesion is lost.
That is not to say there aren’t many delightful moments to be found. When Bud happens upon a Hooverville he meets Deza from whom he gets his first kiss. She is charmingly portrayed by Keziah Brown who not only dazzles Bud, but also the audience. David A. Guster twice plays Bud’s tormentor and each time he is equally up to the task. Bud is rescued on his journey by Lefty, who drives him from Owosso to Grand Rapids, but not before they are stopped by a cop. This scene is one of the most entertaining. As Lefty, Phil Darius Wallace is authentic and captivating. Finally, once in Grand Rapids, Bud is made an honorary member of a band. The men who comprise it (LaTroy Childress, Colin Edwards, Mark Gmazel, and Marwan Prince) bring significant energy and chemistry to the stage.
While good in spots, Bud, Not Buddy, though much like its title character, travels a rocky road.
Bud, Not Buddy continues at Flint Youth Theatre’s Elgood Theatre in Flint’s Cultural Center Saturday, March 7th at 7:30 pm, March 8th at 2:30 pm, March 13th at 7:30 pm, March 14th at both 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and March 15th at 2:30 pm. A conversation with the creative team will follow the March 14th matinee.
Advance tickets are $12 for children, $14 for teens, senior citizens, and military veterans, and $16 for adults. They are available by calling 810-237-1530 or online at FlintYouthTheatre.org. Day-of-performance tickets are an additional $2 above each listed ticketing category.