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Thursday, December 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"Bud, Not Buddy": Hitch a ride on this compelling journey

Seattle Times theater critic

When it comes to decoding what adults really mean when they talk to children, Bud is an expert.

The protagonist in "Bud, Not Buddy," an award-winning novel for youth by Christopher Paul Curtis, Bud Caldwell is a spunky 10-year-old orphan who runs away from an abusive foster home to navigate Depression-era Michigan on his own. He's had to become a masterful observer of adult behavior, just to survive.

Playing the intrepid lead figure in Book-It Repertory Theatre's terrific new stage adaptation of "Bud, Not Buddy," the adult actor Earl Alexander is an utterly convincing Bud.

Bright and alert, his ears always perked up and his imagination galloping, he seems like just the sort of resilient little guy who would light out for the territory. And the kind who would compile a clever list of tips for pursuing a "funner" life.

This compelling young African-American hero's Huck Finn-esque search for a jazz musician he believes is his long-departed father, is enormous fun too — even at its most poignant.

Seattle actor-writer Reginald Andre Jackson handily adapts the Newbery Medal-winning novel by Curtis into a vivacious theatrical amalgam of narration and action that is Book-It's stock and trade. And with actors doubling and quadrupling in roles, and making like a freight train one minute and a mimetic jazz band the next, Mark Jared Zufelt's production is spirited and richly atmospheric.

Curtis, a Michigan native, toiled on an auto-assembly line for 13 years before his writing career took off. And there's no doubt, thanks to both his text and set designer Bill Forrester's backdrop of sepia-toned road and store signs, that this tale is rooted in the working-class, Great Depression-era Midwest, where black folks stuck together (mostly) when the going got tough.

Now playing

"Bud, Not Buddy," adapted by Reginald Andre Jackson, produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre, Wednesdays- Sundays through Dec. 23; $15-$32 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

The play sweeps us along, interweaving Bud's touching and comic journey with the mottoes he concocts, and fond memories of his deceased mother (played by Chelsea Binta).

The show is eventful enough to keep adolescents and adults intrigued. Bud rides the rails with hobos. He's rescued from a possible lynching by a concerned (and rather mysterious) protector. He's taken up by a genial crew of jazz musicians after tracking down his supposed father, the embittered bassist Herman E. Calloway (a role Bill Hall Jr. wears like a well-fitting fedora).

As in many a coming-of-age odyssey, there are a lot of complications — disappointment, misunderstandings, mistaken identities.

Yet Bud's hunt for someone to belong to is not drenched in goopy sentiment. Even the concern shown for him by the jiving musicians, and band singer Miss Thomas (Demene Hall, whose elegance and warmth make up for her modest singing ability) is mingled with teasing humor.

And Bud is no Pollyanna, but a pragmatic, often stoic kid — much like the orphans in Seattle Repertory Theatre's superb adaptation of the John Irving novel, "The Cider House Rules," (which has some obvious similarities to "Bud, Not Buddy").

Be warned, though: you may indeed tear up at times — partly because Bud does not.

The acting ensemble for "Bud, Not Buddy" admirably supports Alexander's adept work throughout. And how right-on that the recorded music for the show is performed by young instrumentalists from Washington Middle School. Groove on, jazz boys.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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