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Theatre in Review: You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (York Theatre Company)

Jeremy T. Villas, Mavis Simpson-Ernst. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Can we invite the adults back into the room? The good people at the York Theatre Company have come up with the idea of doing the beloved musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown with a cast of kids -- and, I am sorry to say, happiness is not a production conceived in this misbegotten way.

This is nothing against the young performers, whose ages appear to hover around eleven. They have impeccable credits. Many of them are Broadway veterans -- there's a former Matlida, a couple of Gavroches from Les Misérables, and former company members from Kinky Boots and Finding Neverland. They've done national tours, television series, and even a handful of films. I have little doubt that, ten years from now, we will be seeing them regularly in one medium or another.

Here, however, they have been assigned a thankless task. On the face of it, it must have seemed like an inspired idea to employ real children as the pint-size cartoon characters created by Charles Schulz for his beloved comic strip, Peanuts, but it's an idea that is inimical to the original material. If you're under 40, you probably won't understand how pervasive Peanuts was in its heyday. In addition to appearing in thousands of newspapers, it spawned a series of television specials, features, paperback collections, greeting cards, and toys. And, of course, Clark Gesner's musical ran more than 1,500 performances Off Broadway, followed by two national tours, several sit-downs, and a bus-and-truck. The material retains a certain currency but is no longer ubiquitous, and one might legitimately question what the musical has to offer today's audiences. The director, Michael Unger, gets points for trying to freshen it up with his kids-playing-kids concept.

In practice, however, the idea is fatally flawed. The reason You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown always worked is that the show grasps something essential about the Peanuts world: Schulz's characters are really angst-ridden adults in miniature -- more Kierkegaard than kindergarten. It's not just that they are conversant with Beethoven, Chopin, and Sigmund Freud; they are little bundles of neuroses -- Charlie Brown's paralysis of will, Lucy's monumental narcissism, Linus' intellectualism, and Schroeder's fanatic dedication to his classical piano skills. Even Snoopy, the dog, is more sophisticated than he first appears, especially with his bizarre fantasies of being a World War I flying ace. The only one who seems like a real child is Sally, Charlie Brown's younger sister, and at times she seems to belong to another show altogether. (York is presenting the 1999 Broadway revision of the script, which drops the admittedly bland role of Patty, substituting Sally, and which also includes additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. The latter includes "My New Philosophy," a number for Sally that is hung on a joke that doesn't make sense.)

It's a world of unrequited longing, self-doubt, cupidity, self-aggrandizement, and existential angst, made all the more amusing for being assigned to grade-schoolers. (It can also be shockingly cruel, for example when Lucy publicly roasts Charlie Brown for having received no Valentines on February 14.) A cast of nimble adult comics can tease out the grown-up complexities (and complexes) inside their so-called children. A cast of children, no matter how technically skilled, are hopelessly overmatched. They know what they are supposed to do, but they can't quite get there. (I can't tell you how many laughs were lost at the performance I attended, as lines were delivered with the emphasis on the wrong word.) In trying to literalize Schulz's world, Unger and company have killed the joke.

At least, one can enjoy Gesner's witty and tuneful songs, including "My Blanket and Me," Linus' tribute to his best friend; "The Book Report," in which everyone manages to mangle the story of Peter Rabbit; and the charming "Happiness." (I'm also rather fond of "Glee Club Rehearsal," during which a rendition of "Home on the Range" descends into chaos.) In addition, Brian Prather's set design is a comic strip panel come to life, with a revolving center unit that contains the music director, Eric Svejcar. (The three-piece band is aces, with Svejcar's piano work especially terrific.) Graham Kindred's lighting supplies extra bits of color and flash to those numbers that need them. Grier Coleman's costumes are reasonably faithful to Schulz's vision of boys in shorts and T-shirts and girls in sack dresses with puffed sleeves. David Margolin Lawson's sound design is surprisingly complex, including birdsong, echo effects, and the sounds of aerial battle for Snoopy's flying-ace sequence.

Some reviewers have suggested that this Charlie Brown, with all its faults, is still a fine show for kids, and I suppose that's possible, although New York is currently loaded with child-friendly entertainments. If you do end up taking an underage audience member, better prep them by showing them last year's The Peanuts Movie. Otherwise, they might not get what all the fuss is about. -- David Barbour

(17 June 2016)

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