You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown


HELLO, OLD FRIENDS
Theatre Review by Fergus McGillicuddy


Watching You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is like running into your old gang. You know, the kids you haven't seen for years. The last three decades have treated them well. True, they haven't changed much since the late '60s. They're still obsessed with all the insecurities, doubts, and outright paranoia that childhood is heir to. But then - tell the truth - underneath it all, aren't you too?

To answer the obvious question at the top; yes, children nowadays still know who Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Linus, Schroeder, and Sally are, and they love them. At the matinee performance I attended, little tykes whose ages could be counted on the fingers of only two hands were in the majority. To a child they sat mesmerized, behaving themselves far better than many an adult audience I've encountered recently. Their parents seemed pathetically grateful Broadway is finally offering Something To Do As A Family which does not involve giant, menacing puppets guaranteed to give the just starting school set nightmares. (For those of us with unpleasant memories of masses of children in a Broadway theatre, the ushers assured me the week night performances are relatively child free.)

So, is Charlie Brown just a kids' show, a mindless musical entertainment discerning adult theatregoers should avoid at all costs? No, my friends, it is much, much more than that. Charlie Brown is nothing less than a delightful, virtuoso display of theatrical skills marshaled by its director and a handful of disciplined, astute and finely calibrated bravura performances, the likes of which have rarely been seen on Broadway since Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber changed the rules and expectations of what a musical should be.

The challenge of a revival of Charlie Brown these days is what made the original production so appealing. It's whimsical, with little more to its credit than a handful of jokes and 16 fun and entertaining, if not exactly memorable, songs. (Based as it is on a comic strip, which even at its trendy height of popularity was little more than gentle, forgiving, and innocent, could it be any other way?) There is no plot as such, simply a series of vignettes which are little more than set-ups for character-centric musical numbers. Charlie Brown is neither great nor profound Theatre.

This type of musical currently has a bad reputation, and deservedly so. In the hands of well-intentioned amateurs or even professionals with little understanding of its assumptions and demands, a vintage musical comes across as stale, pointless, and potentially offensive to contemporary sensibilities. But in the hands of gifted theatre artists who understand the material's limits and clockwork structure, in performance it can bring a glow to a stage and enchant and amuse even a cynical and jaded modern audience.

The director, Michael Mayer, understands and is at ease with this demanding and now risky material. That he has made all the right choices is obvious from the start. The pace is quick, the staging lively and appropriate, the transitions smooth, the tone enthusiastic, and the mood joyful. What isn't immediately apparent in this effortless flow is how finely honed the performances are, how the cast's natural exuberance has been balanced and restrained so as not to overwhelm a musical which only aspires to provide laughs, catchy tunes, and a gentle good time.

Kristin Chenoweth plays Sally as if she is destined to become either a Congresswoman or a serial murderer. (One of her speeches, suffused with Brechtian overtones so dense it will give me nightmares for a week, somehow sounds perfectly logical coming out of the mouth of a four-year-old.) A major surprise of the show, Chenoweth somehow manages to successfully integrate a sharp, contemporary edge into her role with hilarious results.

Stanley Wayne Mathis has perhaps the best singing voice on stage, and he plays Schroeder as the most stable and mature character of the bunch. If his take on the role is occasionally a bit too intense, his performance comes into its own in Andrew Lippa's two new songs, "Beethoven Day" and "My New Philosophy."

B. D. Wong pulls us in by appearing to have the time of his life playing Linus. Who knew he could sing? Who knew he could dance with a blanket? (Though one could wish the choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, had spent just a little more time teaching that blue blanket how to dance.)

If he's not careful, Roger Bart will end up typecast as a dog. With Snoopy, the one role in the show which allows - no, demands - flash, sass, and a sure instinct for physical comedy, Bart exceeds all expectations time and time again. (When was the last time you saw an actor literally bring the house to tears of laughter by yawning, stretching, and scratching himself?) And, he's got the two best musical numbers in the show; the inspired lunacy of the "Rabbit Chasing" sequence with Kristin Chenoweth, and what can only be described as an 11 o'clock number in the grand tradition of Broadway musicals in "Suppertime."

Lucy appears to exist solely to challenge and exacerbate the developing personalities of the other characters. An inept or self-indulgent actress would quickly fall victim to the trap of playing Lucy as anything more than the irritable and grumpy one-dimensional figure the role needs to be to allow the show to work on its own terms. Wisely, Ilana Levine resists all temptations and her efforts pay off handsomely right at the end, when, in one simple and effective sentence she brings a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, and resolves all issues of adolescent angst. If You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown has any pretensions to social relevance or deep, emotional significance - and, it does, a little bit - this brief, golden moment - when we are given permission to be ourselves, faults and all - is it.

Anthony Rapp's Charlie Brown is a revelation, both for his performance and the discipline and professionalism behind it. Charlie Brown is a dangerous and, when done properly, thankless role. Play it all wide-eyed innocence and naivete and an audience quickly grows bored and surprisingly angry with the character. Overdo the anguish and self-doubt and you'll lose them even faster. Dare to play it for laughs and suddenly the character is too self-aware and the assumptions on which this fragile show is built shatter into a thousand pieces.

Jack Benny, a comic genius in anyone's book, built a career on his razor sharp sense of timing and ability to gauge and communicate his reactions to the illogical world confronting him at every turn. While there are still a few awkward moments in Mr. Rapp's performance, on a whole he displays a similar confident and understated approach, and appropriates the great comedian's technique of allowing the other actors to get the big laughs. And by doing so, he brings his character, and, indeed, the whole show to life. It seems a little thing, to walk this particular tightrope. But, when you stop to think about it, it's an astonishing accomplishment.

The scenery, by David Gallo, and costumes, by Michael Krass, are exactly what they need to be, no more no less. The lighting, by Kenneth Posner, and the sound, by Brian Ronan, is so good you don't notice it. Andrew Lippa (Music Supervision), Michael Gibson (Orchestrations), and Kimberly Grigsby (Music Director) are to be commended for their excellent work.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Based on the Comic Strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schultz
Music, Book and Lyrics by Clark Gesner
Additional Material by Andrew Lippa
Directed by Michael Mayer
Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
Starring Roger Bart (Snoopy), Kristin Chenoweth (Sally), Ilana Levine (Lucy), Stanley Wayne Mathis (Schroeder), with Anthony Rapp (Charlie Brown), and B.D. Wong (Linus)

Ambassador Theatre, 215 West 49th Street, New York, NY 10019 (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Running Time 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 1 PM and 5:30 PM

Beginning MARCH 1 - Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 1 PM and 5:30 PM

Appropriate for children 4 and older. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.

Ambassador Theatre Box Office: Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM. Sundays Noon to 6 PM.

Online: NetTiks at http://www.telecharge.com/

Phone: Tele-charge at (212) 239-6200.

Mail Order: You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998.