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You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 31, 2016

Gregory Diaz, Mavis Simpson-Ernst, Aidan Gemme,
Jeremy T. Villas, Milly Shapiro, and Joshua Colley
Photo by Carol Rosegg

It's an unusual—but wonderful—conceit of the theatre that a blatant falsehood often leads to a deeper truth. It's why, when circumstances are perfect, a musical communicates more about the inner workings of the mind than a spoken play or why a man in drag seems more like a woman than the genetic real deal. Or, for that matter, why adults make more convincing children than adolescent (or preadolescent) actors do—ability, experience, and hindsight are illuminating attributes that younger performers, excellent though they might be, simply can't have. This is one issue with the York Theatre Company's entertaining but rocky new revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which uses seasoned child actors in the roles of five children and one dog.

The other issue has to do with its source material. Although the characters in Charles M. Schulz's timeless "Peanuts" comic strip were almost all children, they never acted exclusively like it: They were wracked with the worries and neuroses we typically ascribe to grown-ups. The essential innocence and simplicity of their both their nature and Schulz's drawing style stood in charming, maddening juxtaposition to the their realer-than-real problems, making "Peanuts" a comic that children of any age could enjoy, but only adults would fully get. And with his 1967 Off-Broadway musical, Clark Gesner captured all these qualities, while borrowing from Schulz's "Peanuts" personalities (and many of its punch lines), and reorienting them in the period's innovative, experimental, stripped-down style.

Combine these characteristics, and you have a piece that's as deceptively difficult to pull off as it is a cinch to understand and even easier to love. By trying to have the best of all worlds with his mounting, Michael Unger ends up with the best of none of them, and his charges are too often caught in the middle, forced to fill roles and sing songs that are beyond the reasonable reach of anyone short of, at best, high school age.

The show follows, more or less, a day in the life of perpetual loser Charlie Brown (Joshua Colley), as he struggles with homework, unrequited feelings for the little red-haired girl down the street, and self-doubt, all while putting up with his demanding little sister Sally (Milly Shapiro), his strong-willed and food-loving dog Snoopy (Aidan Gemme), the crabby Lucy (Mavis Simpson-Ernst), her blanket-toting genius brother Linus (Jeremy T. Villas), and the piano-loving Schroeder (Gregory Diaz), all of whom have no shortage of hang-ups of their own.

Although the script used here is the version concocted for the 1999 Broadway revival, which was revised by Michael Mayer and features a couple of new songs by Andrew Lippa, and it roughs up some of the original's softer, more approachable edges, it still works on all the levels that count. The songs convey a warm and winning, yet clear-eyed, youthfulness in line with Schulz's worldview, and, working in conjunction with the scenes, are alternately lively and touching in their depiction of this motley bunch of 40-year-old 8-year-olds. Though I've had no shortage of exposure to the show or "Peanuts," I still found myself getting misty-eyed during "The Doctor Is In," when Charlie learns (from better-than-amateur psychiatrist Lucy) that, despite his faults, he's valuable because he's the only Charlie Brown there is, and during the finale, "Happiness," when the gang catalogs everything that brings them joy in a frequently joyless world.

But the actors, through no fault of their own, are just not up to this. Colley is an oddly dark, even calculating Charlie, who emphasizes the boy's world-weariness at the expense of the unconditional love beneath his skin, and has a shrill, uncertain singing voice. Gemme is broad and winky as Snoopy, and not aided by the floppy-ear hat he wears (costume designer Grier Coleman's weakest idea). Diaz makes Schroeder appropriately bookish, but doesn't unlock his deeper fervor (one of Lippa's new songs, "Beethoven Day," links, if somewhat improbably, the classical composer to contemporary rock-gospel), and often speaks and sings too soft to be heard. Jeremy T. Villas, the littlest person onstage, is a dynamite, dynamic dancer, but trips nonstop over Linus's intricate, intellectual dialogue. And Milly Shapiro misses most of the laughs and all of the zest of Sally, the rewritten role that launched Kristin Chenoweth to stardom and her Tony Award. Only Simpson-Ernst appears fully comfortable in her part, even if her Lucy is a bit brittler than ideal, one suspects because, at 12 or 13, she's probably the most mature person onstage (or at least because she acts that way).

Everything else on display is crisp and professional, with colorful, cartoony sets (by Brian Prather) and lights (Graham Kindred), friendly choreography (by Jennifer Paulson Lee), and energetic musical direction (by Eric Svejcar). But professionalism is not the first thought You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown should inspire—if you're not captivated by the people, both real and imaginary, at its heart, and encouraged to reconsider where the lines between youth and adulthood are and should be, something is amiss. For as fine as the show is, and as game as the still-developing cast members clearly are, this particular production cannot quite overcome the fact that, in presenting Schulz's youngsters, it's at once too young and not young enough.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Through June 26
York Theatre Company at The Theatre at Saint Peter's — Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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