Musical: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: March 31, April 1, 2, 7, 8, 9
Tickets: $5-$20; contact 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org
Story: It’s a typical day in the life of one Charles (“Charlie”) Brown, a round-headed kid in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with a large jagged line across the middle. Life is full of fears, mysteries and anxieties for him, and it doesn’t help that everyone calls him by his full name to keep just a bit of distance. That even includes his faithful dog, Snoopy.
In the course of the day Charlie Brown tries to work up the courage to sit next to the cute Little Red-Haired Girl, get his kite to fly without crashing into a tree, visit neighborhood psychiatrist Lucy Van Pelt for a nickel’s worth of advice, celebrate Beethoven’s birthday with his pianist pal Schroeder, listen to various philosophical discourses by his thumb-sucking friend Linus, observe the rantings of his little sister Sally and tolerate the theatrics of his imaginative beagle, all while searching for validation that he is, indeed, a good man.
Highlights: Inspired by the legendary comic strip created by Charles M. Schulz, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” ran for four year off-Broadway from 1967 to 1971. Revived in 1999 with the addition of Sally Brown and the deletion of Patty, a minor character who faded through the years of the strip (not to be confused with the later addition of the very popular Peppermint Patty), the latter Broadway edition featured Tony Award-winning turns by Kristen Chenoweth as Sally and Roger Bart as scene-stealing Snoopy.
The book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, who also wrote for “Captain Kangaroo,” “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” in his career, are soft, warm and fuzzy, and capture the ongoing appeal of Schulz’s infectious cluster of kids. The Broadway revival, which is the version presented by Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell, includes additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa.
Other Info: It’s a good vehicle for actors to find their inner children and for kids in the audience to enjoy the primary colors of the set design, the simple costumes and the everyday travails of being a kid, or rather a person of any age, that gives “Charlie Brown” its charm.
What’s lacking in this production, and in the musical in general, is the sophistication and thought that made Schulz and “Peanuts” such a shrewd observer of human nature. While some of the performers in director Bell’s Stray Dog presentation handle that duality with aplomb, others never get beyond the surface kid mannerisms. As a result, it’s an uneven rendition, although most of the opening night audience was most appreciative.
The real standouts are Marcy Wiegert and Chrissy Brooks as Lucy and Sally, respectively. Wiegert captures the domineering nature of Lucy, whether intimidating her brother Linus while taking a survey about her relative crabbiness or instructing Charlie Brown on the vagaries of life, but also shows us Lucy’s unrequited affection for Schroeder. Brooks delightfully personifies Sally’s independence and skewered view of the world, particularly amusing on the number, “My New Philosophy,” as she challenges another mediocre report card.
There’s also splendid work by C.E. Fifer as boy philosopher Linus, who does his best to console good ol’ Charlie Brown with his sundry problems while clutching his security blanket. Ben Watts is appealing as the happy-go-lucky Snoopy, who embellishes his dreams with fantastic flying missions against the infamous Red Baron or enlivens his daily nourishment with an impromptu dance to suppertime.
James Cougar Canfield has fun as the befuddled Charlie Brown, generously allowing his colleagues to play off his character with their more lively impersonations. Mark Saunders has a good time as the artistically gifted Schroeder, although why his arms hang limply by his sides so often is a theatrical puzzlement and doesn’t match the cartoon character’s general self-confidence.
Bell directs the production with deference to the kids in the audience, which is probably a smart approach for a show that’s more than 40 years old, albeit a revived version. Vocal director Leslie Sikes oversees the enthusiastic efforts of the troupe, and JT Ricroft’s choreography is highlighted by Snoopy’s carefree abandon and a nifty ‘blanket ballet’ featuring Linus’ paean to his trusty prop, with a nod to dance captain Brooks.
The set is highlighted with those bright primary colors, accentuated with Tyler Duenow’s lighting, Justin Been’s pleasing projection design and Jay Hall’s props. Costumes readily identify the various characters, with kudos to Teresa Bentley for Lucy’s familiar, perfectly coiffed raven hair.
While the production has its limitations in style and substance, this “Charlie Brown” doubtless is a crowd-pleaser for kids and adults alike.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.