You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
The fact that my cat is named Peanut should tell you something. This beloved comic strip was a special and important part of my childhood, and the hapless Charlie Brown a very dear friend. So I was excited to see this Broadway musical, which Reno’s newest theater company, Theater A, now presents in cooperation with Swope Middle School, just in time for the 59th anniversary of the creation of Peanuts.
Charlie Brown, a Tony and Drama Desk Award winner, is an ideal first musical, due to its small cast and simple, vignette-style routines. This is a good thing, since Theater A’s concept is to provide performance opportunities and shows for all ages. As such, it is collaborating with Swope Middle School students to present two identical versions—one featuring an adult cast and another with middle school students. I caught the adult cast on opening night, which might have accounted for a few audio glitches and trouble with the cast hitting some high notes.
The show, which is comprised of several comics woven together and interspersed with musical numbers, takes us through one day in the life of Charlie Brown. The six-person cast—Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Sally, Linus, Lucy and Schroeder—go to school, write a book report, fly a kite, rehearse for glee club, play a baseball game and daydream. All your favorite things from the comic make appearances, from Lucy’s psychiatric booth to Charlie Brown’s kite, Linus’ blanket, Schroeder’s piano and Snoopy’s doghouse.
The comics are genius, of course. The writing makes it worth seeing—especially with your kids. My favorite was “The Book Report,” a rousing number in which each character struggles to compose a 100-word essay about Peter Rabbit. It’s performed as a round that grows in energy as each character works to fill his or her 100 words. Genius.
But the music itself is only so-so; it’s not particularly memorable, and the notes feel flat—especially as performed here, by actors who, for the most part, can’t carry them. There are a few exceptions by Carolyn Gourlie as a precocious Sally, and by Theater A’s founder, Aaron Hutchings, as Schroeder.
Actually, pretty much everything Gourlie does is great. She’s the drama teacher at Swope, and her comic timing and expressive movements are exceptional. I loved “My New Philosophy,” which features Sally trying to figure out which trite catch phrase should be her new personal philosophy.
Hutchings’ Schroeder is a little over-the-top most of the time, but he’s fun to watch anyway. He’s still the smug pianist we, and Lucy, love, but more overly dramatic than usual.
If you’re looking for a show that’s completely true to the comic strip, this isn’t it. For example, at one point, Sally picks on Linus for carrying a blanket; diehard Peanuts fans know she adores Linus. And Snoopy, of course, is a boy, yet here, he’s a she (Robin Waite) who talks and sings.
Charlie Brown was first played in 1967 by Gary Burghoff (MASH’s Radar). It’s a tough role that requires a sympathetic vulnerability. The laughs are at his expense; he has to be lovably pathetic, not uncomfortably so. Brian Ault’s performance as Charlie Brown unfortunately crosses that line into uncomfortable territory.
Still, when that (not terribly authentic) ending came, and the tyrant Lucy (Cindy Waite) calls Charlie Brown “a good man,” my eyes welled up, and I was a little girl all over again, saying goodbye to my friends.