Denise Thimes gives grandmotherly wisdom in Metro Theater's ‘Last Stop On Market Street’
When jazz vocalist Denise Thimes performs songs from the Great American Songbook in a nightclub, she often sings of love and loss.
Her role in Metro Theater Company’s musical “Last Stop on Market Street” presents a different challenge, but there’s a clear through-line connecting her different onstage jobs.
“I communicate with my audience, no matter what. If it’s through theater or if it’s through song, you tell the story — you connect with your audience,” she said shortly before a recent rehearsal. “I’m connecting with people, and they feel what I’m giving them.”
The musical is based on a celebrated children’s book by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, which won a Newbery Medal in 2016. Cheryl L. West adapted it for the stage, with music and lyrics by Motown legend Lamont Dozier and his son, Paris Ray Dozier. Metro Theater Company’s production, at the Grandel through Feb 27, is the show’s first performance in St. Louis.
Thimes and Daniel McGrath star in the show, which is geared for young audiences. She plays Nana, and he plays her grandson, CJ. The boy is enthusiastic about his electronic devices and headphones, but not eager to step out of his comfort zone and ride a city bus, or interact with people who are less fortunate. Nana makes it her mission to open him up to new experiences and new people.
The ensemble also includes Robert Crenshaw, Valentina Silva, Cameron Tyler and Tyler White, who each play multiple roles.
The central relationship between Nana and CJ is familiar to director Jacqueline Thompson.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother growing up. I definitely had an intergenerational household,” Thompson said. “That really resonates — the importance of intergenerational relationships, the importance of appreciating and honoring and celebrating the elders in our life.”
Thimes has built a reputation as a soulful interpreter of songs, whether performing a solo show at the Blue Strawberry cabaret or joining St. Louis Symphony’s IN UNISON chorus at Powell Hall as a featured soloist. Her annual Mother’s Day show in St. Louis has been a tradition since 1997; the event raises funds for the Mildred Thimes Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer, named for her late mother. For the past five years she’s held a residency at Winter’s Jazz Club in Chicago, where she relocated for a time before moving back to St. Louis during the pandemic.
She also has done extensive work in the theater, though she took a seven-year break from acting before appearing in the Black Rep’s “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” in 2019. The theater offers a different way to work with her material.
“It’s not like singing some ballads, where you can improvise and take your time and say things and play with the music and the words and all this. This is more by the book, so to speak,” she said. “But I can still do some things, put the Denise Thimes thing on it, you know.”
McGrath said it’s been a learning experience sharing the stage with Thimes.
“I think she would be a great director one day,” he said. “She helps to pull people up while she helps herself up. She can push people up and be a leader without tearing them down. She’s just very supportive.”
In a key scene, Nana takes CJ on a bus trip to a poor neighborhood. There are bars on some windows and broken glass on the ground. His first response is to complain that the area is “bad” and “really dirty,” and ask to return home. Nana cautions him not to make a hasty judgment. “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt,” she tells him, “you’re a better witness to what is beautiful.”
Though Nana encourages CJ to see the beauty in a flower growing through a crack in the sidewalk, she’s also quick to correct his behavior when he has unkind words about a family experiencing homelessness.
Thimes said she is a lot like her character.
“In almost every way, she really is me. She’s a stickler,” Thimes said. “It’s like she’s going to pour everything that she can into this young man — about his culture, about being connected to a higher power, about appreciating the things that you have, about being compassionate for those that don’t.”
Thompson, the director, said she’d like audience members, young and old, to take the show’s messages to heart.
“If they have a grandparent they can call, I want them to want to call. I want them to want to explore other communities and find the beauty in giving, the beauty in exploring, the beauty in understanding our differences — and also celebrating when we connect,” she said. “I want them to be able to think and explore all those things.”
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