Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Marie and Rosetta
Most of you reading this are familiar with "A Charlie Brown Christmas" as a half-hour television special first broadcast in 1965, and re-broadcast every holiday season since. It was written by Charles M. Shulz based on characters he created in his comic strip "Peanuts," which had become a national phenomenon. It was carried in over two thousand daily newspapers, with collected strips published as best-selling books, its characters emblazoned on all manner of merchandise, and catch-phrases such as Charlie Brown's exasperated "Good grief" becoming well known. Two years later, the full-length musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown opened Off-Broadway and ran for nearly four years. Almost two decades after Schulz's death in February 2000, Peanuts continues to hold an iconic place in American culture, with his beloved comic strips still re-run in newspapers across the country. In 2013, the stage adaptation of A Charlie Brown Christmas, created by Eric Schaeffer, was licensed.
The live-on-stage A Charlie Brown Christmas follows scene by scene, almost to the word, Schulz's original script. It opens with the kids in the Peanuts gangLucy, Linus, Schroeder, Sally and the restenjoying the joys of winter, ice skating, playing in the snow, and in thrall of the eminent arrival of Christmasall but Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown, who Schulz admitted to be inspired by his own life, finds Christmas and holiday season depressing. Where others see the dazzle of bright lights and a haul of awesome presents, Charlie sees shallow commercialism. The forced gaiety and intense socializing leave him feeling lonelier than ever, underscored by his empty mailbox, where he waits in hope of receiving a Christmas card.
Lucy, usually cast as Charlie Brown's nemesis, invites him to direct the kids' Christmas play, to give him a way of connect to the holiday. But the kids ignore his directions and mock his serious tone until Lucy sends Charlie Brown to pick out a Christmas tree for the play while she restores order. Even at this he fumbles badly and is harshly derided by all the kids, except for Linus, Lucy's philosophically inclined little brother, who finally explains to Charlie Brown and the others the real meaning of Christmas. <:P>The original television show ran half an hour, less the time for commercials. To create an hour-long stage play, Schaeffer frames it with a series of live commercials, harkening back to the corny style of mid 1960s TV. These are enacted by a talented ensemble of high school students. These theater veterans, most having appeared at Stepping Stone and on other local stages, handle these nostalgic vignettes with aplomb. These bits are not campy or cynical in the way of faux commercials on "Saturday Night Live," but goofy and good-hearted glee, hawking such products as a lipstick-comb, a needle-less Christmas tree, and tapioca-on-tap with exaggerated good cheer. Before the play itself even gets underway, the ensemble kicks things off with several Christmas carols, delivered a capella in impressive harmony.
The young actors playing the Peanuts characters are all well cast and convey the well-known (to Peanuts fans, at least) idiosyncrasies of each. Most impressive is Aaron Goehle as Charlie Brown, displaying increasing frustration with his inability to find meaning in Christmas amid a universe that has gone commercial. Molly McCormick does a swell job as take-charge, tell-it-like-it-is Lucy, complete with her Psychiatric Help stand, coldly dispensing common-sense answers to life's puzzlements for a nickel. Ben Ross conveys Linus' complex personality quite well, between the well-known fixation on his security blanket and his precocious ability to see the simple truth at the heart of the matter. All the rest of the gang put forth their stock traits, including Tommy Molldrem dispensing Pigpen's perpetual cloud of dust, Timmy Torinus displaying Schroeder's adoration of Beethoven, and Marin Miroslavich giving us a fine impression of Sally's naïve self-centered view of the world, when she defends her Christmas list to Santa, but shouting, "I only want what's coming to me! I just want my fair share!"
Which brings us to the "ringer" I mentioned above: Neal Skoy, an appealing and talented comic actor who wholly transforms himself into everyone's favorite beagle, Snoopy. Skoy's dialogue consists of a series of different forms of howling, whining, screeching and hissing while bringing the world-famous pooch to life. A scene in which Snoopy fancies himself a World War I flying ace in pursuit of the Red Barona running bit from the comic strip and a total digression from the rest of the playis completely charming, and his approach to decorating his dog house in hopes of winning big money in the local Christmas Decorations contest is a hoot and a howl.
Stauffer keeps the flow of the Charlie Brown story moving gracefully, scenes seamlessly changing, though the pauses for commercial breaks do break up the narrative flowas they do on real television. But they do add an additional aspect of nostalgia to the work, especially performed in the frame of a mid-century style wood-paneled television set topped by rabbit-ear antennas.
For the Charlie Brown Christmas story proper, a lovely set depicting snow mounds, a skating pond, and a dog house that rolls in and out provides a bright setting, with all of it designed by Micah Haworth. Barb Portinga's straightforward costumes perfectly suit both the ensemble in their TV commercials and the Peanuts gang, with Charlie Brown's signature yellow t-shirt with a brown zig-zag stripe making an appearance as well as a charming adult-size beagle suit for Snoopy.
Kris Stauffer's music direction adds loveliness as the Charlie Brown crew harmoniously sing "Christmas Time Is Here" and the closing carol, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." The former was written for the television special by jazz pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi, who wrote the entire score for the project, a jazzy background for a show depicting contemporary children, placing the story squarely in the immediate present. The score is almost as iconic as the animated feature itself, with its recording having a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Pianist Sean Turner, visible on stage behind the snow mounds, plays almost continuously, delivering Guaraldi's expressive themes with lilt and affection.
Of course, it is easy to view A Charlie Brown Christmas on one of its annual re-broadcasts or in all manner of home media, but seeing the story enacted on stage, by children born more than four decades after it first appeared that adds a great sense of authenticity and timelessness to this simple story. Steppingstone's production doesn't have the grand scale sets and costumes of the big downtown holiday shows, but, like the Christmas tree chosen by Charlie Brown, it speaks straight to the heart, and needs only to be loved.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, through December 22, 2018, at the Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street N., Saint Paul MN. Tickets run $12.00 - $18.00, but please be advised that many performances are already sold out. Recommended all ages. For more information go to www.steppingstonetheatre.org or call 651-225-9265
By Charles M. Schulz, based on the television special by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson; Stage Adaptation: Eric Shaeffer; Director: Dane Stauffer; Music Director: Kris Stauffer; Choreographer: Kathryn Dudley; Set Design: Micah Haworth; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: John Acarregui; Props Design: Jessica Kray Martin; Production Stage Manager: Rachel Ostroot; Assistant Stage Manager: Aspen Schucker; Costume Design Assistant: Kathryn Ansley.
Cast: Edric Duffy (Shermy), Aaron Goehle (Charlie Brown), Molly McCormick (Lucy), Marin Miroslavich (Sally), Tommy Molldrem (Pigpen), Lucy Prock (Freida), Ben Ross (Linus), Neal Skoy (Snoopy), Georgia Sizer (Peppermint Patty), Kate Spence (Violet), Timmy Torinus (Schroeder), Sean Turner (pianist). Ensemble: Ellie Augustine, Simon Baker, Ryder James, Ava Paulson, Parker Payne, Victoria Pekel, Max Perdu and Mara Stein.