The show’s only real hit run (1,500-plus performances) was that original staging with Gary Burghoff (Radar O’Reilly in M*A*S*H) as the titular character. A 1999 revival added Andrew Lippa songs to the Clark Gesner originals and provided additional dialogue by Michael Mayer. It picked up a couple of Tony Awards, but closed before the ceremony. This is the version currently playing at Stray Dog Theatre under the imaginative direction of Gary F. Bell.
We often dig back into the theatrical vault for museum pieces that mirror our own times, and there are some comparisons in “Charlie Brown” to “now” and “then”: An unpopular war drags on; there is generational disconnect, political animosity, lack of civility in public discourse, and disenfranchised groups fighting for basic civil rights, not the least of which is marriage being open to all who want a lifetime commitment recognized by the government and the rest of society.
So, Charlie Brown and his friends obliquely address more serious issues than the bright and peppy tone of the show would indicate. Good grief! I sound like Linus who overanalyzes everything, even his book report, to which he applies a Freudian analysis of Peter Rabbit. This show can be, and usually is, viewed on its merits as a family-friendly musical about a bunch of 5 and 6-year-old kids doing the usual kid stuff, though Charlie Brown’s obsession with the unseen “little red-haired girl” seems a bit precocious.
The whole cast does good work. Ben Watts is a sublime Snoopy—a smidgen of Sean Hayes mixed with some Ian McKellan. He is a true “show dog,” and he observes and reflects the action of the humans. He creates a story of his own when he’s alone, riding his Sopwith Camel (dog house) and engaging in aerial combat with the Red Baron. He sings a soul-filled “Suppertime,” a paean to the highlight of his day. There is one awkward choice, however. Microphones aren’t used except in The Red Baron number (so there can be sound effects, I assume) which makes Watts sound like he’s singing in a well.
I do understand the need to suggest children’s voices, but Marcy Wiegert’s Lucy is painfully loud much of the time. Chrissy Brooks’ Sally Brown comes off rather better. I like Wiegert’s voice, but I think it’s over-exaggerated for the character, and she may think so too, since she mentions it in her program bio. Linus is cute with his blanket and thumb firmly in place, and C.E. Fifer gives a real sense of believing in his character. Mark Saunders as Schroeder has all the right moves as he plans a birthday party for Beethoven, rejects Lucy’s constant advances, and tries to direct a glee club in which the members keep drifting away.
James Cougar Canfield in the central role as the boy who manifests the marginalized among us, has the right look, a good voice and is pleasant, but I didn’t feel like he was really hurting when he lost the baseball game or didn’t get any Valentines. But he does play the happier Charlie Brown well. Almost magically, through a chewed up pencil, some pointed advice from Lucy, and a kind of spiritual awakening, Charlie Brown turns out to have had a pretty good day after all. In fact, his character reminds me of an observation in Next to Normal (a comparison you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, Dear Reader): “You don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.”
A few visual projections enhance the simple set design—Lucy’s psychiatry booth and Snoopy’s dog house are the scenery and the lights allow a cartoon-like look a good deal of the time. Tyler Duenow is in charge of the lighting design, and the projections of the aerial “dogfight” are fun. and JT Ricroft has nicely choreographed the group of mostly non-dancers so they look good. No credit is listed for the scenic designer, but it is standard stuff.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is still a staple of high school and community theatres. It’s even spawned a satire “Dog Sees God,” which I find more interesting than its source. And this brings me to my central question: Why would a company like Stray Dog that has given us an excellent and complex season so far want to put on this show on in the first place? It’s not that it’s done badly, but that it is done at all.
On the plus side, you can take the kids because it’s short enough (the second act is only 35 minutes long) to accommodate young attention spans. I think now there’s a danger of children being considerably less familiar than their parents and grandparents were with these characters, the various holiday specials notwithstanding, but that doesn’t preclude enjoying them.
Most important of all though, Stray Dog demonstrated its commitment to outreach is a real way at the show I attended: a group of differently abled adults were there, and they liked it a lot. Bell went over to talk to them at intermission, and I also spotted him chatting with a girl who looked to be about 4 years old. The fact that “Charlie Brown” lends itself to getting underserved audiences into the theatre more than justifies its production. And I just answered my own question: Stray Dog put on the show for those who truly need some of the magic of theatre in their lives, and that encompasses everyone.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at Stray Dog Theatre through April 9. You may visit www.straydogtheatre.org for more information.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT