YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN
By Clark Gesner
I go to the theater to be entertained. If I nod off during a show, I figure it's not entertaining me.
I had a little trouble staying awake at You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
I admit this with more than a little embarrassment and regret. I've always liked the Peanuts comic strip. For me, Charles M. Schulz mixes enough wit and vinegar with the cute doings of his little people to short-circuit the gag reflex. He can make a significant statement in the short compass of the four frames of a strip. And he has the comic skill to punch out a joke in the same space.
Clark Gesner, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, maintains Schulz's balance most of the time in his theatrical adaptation of the comic strip. The music, though not memorable, can exhibit a Peanuts playfulness with musical themes. The songs fit Schulz's characters, too. "Little Known Facts" gloriously celebrates Lucy's supremely confident wrongheadedness. "The Kite" traces musically the rise and fall of Charlie Brown's ever-renewed, ever-crushed faith in the benevolence of the elements and in his own kitesmanship. These numbers faithfully reproduce incidents from the comics.
But that's about all they do. That's about all the whole show does. It's a series of vignettes, each with about as much material as a single strip would have, or perhaps a three- or four-day series of strips. Most of them come from old Peanuts strips. I enjoyed them when I read them in the comics. I enjoyed them again when I read them collected in book form. And I still found them mildly amusing when I watched them at the Fox.
But when I go to the theater, I would like something more than just mild amusement. One of the advantages of the theater, a relatively long form, over the comic strip, a very short form, is that the theater has the time and space to draw us into the complicated unfolding of a story and its characters, ideas and emotions. That doesn't happen here. Hence my need to fight off drowsiness as these pleasantly familiar little incidents washed over me.
Nothing about Michael Mayer's direction snapped me awake, but I did admire the way he made the vignettes flow into one another. I particularly admired David Gallo's scenery; the sets, with their bright, bold colors and simple lines, look like a comic strip but don't make live human actors appear out of place on them.
Those actors are fine -- Anthony Rapp as an appealing round-headed kid, Ilana Levine as crabby Lucy and Stanley Wayne Mathis as the Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder. Kristin Chenoweth shows off sparkling song-and-dance skills in her carefully detailed portrait of Charlie's little sister, Sally. Roger Bart as Snoopy does a crowd-pleasing number, "Suppertime," filled with pleasantly familiar dance routines. As Linus, B.D. Wong often looks very much like Linus. Having Linus partner his security blanket in a dance is a splendid idea, but choreographer Jerry Mitchell never takes it beyond the obvious.
I may have felt detached from this Charlie Brown in part because, in the Fox, I was detached. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is an intimate musical. Though I could see the whole stage clearly and usually hear well, I couldn't catch the facial expressions and other small details of the performances. The show probably should be kept in smaller spaces or, if possible, reconceived so it has an impact in a large space.
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