`Peanuts' characters help keep musical afloat

Actors in `Charlie Brown' overcome lack of a plot

May 04, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you're a "Peanuts" fan, it's a fine time for "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," the 1967 musical based on the beloved comic strip by Charles M. Schulz.

The strip and its creator had been long with us until a few months ago, so the revival of the musical by the Howard Community College Student/Alumni group feels like a timely, cheerful tribute.

The show -- with book, lyrics and music by Clark Gesner -- isn't much of a musical, though that didn't keep it from running for four years off-Broadway. The songs are slight, and the story is nonexistent. All it has is the "Peanuts" characters. Luckily, that's a lot.

It's certainly enough to keep Susan G. Kramer's production afloat. Kramer and her actors seize on the joy and quirky precociousness of Schulz's creations; like the originals, they are fun to be with.

How can your heart not go out to that classic lovable loser, Charlie Brown? The hope and disappointment on actor Matt Clark's face captures the blockhead's gentle, profoundly shy, clumsy essence.

Clark's Charlie Brown, sporting the famous zig-zag T-shirt, is a delightfully pathetic sight sitting at the playground with his lunch bag over his head. This image is from one of Schulz's early strips, in which a nervous Charlie Brown dreams of meeting a cute, little red-haired girl, played here by a radiant Janelle Cree.

Coby Kay Callahan has Lucy's bossiness down to a "T"; you believe Zachariah Kates' Linus when he cowers in fear as Lucy bullies the truth out of him. The truth hurts: Lucy's a crabby person. But that knowledge doesn't dampen Lucy's self-esteem, and Callahan's indomitable spirit is infectious.

Kates' Linus isn't entirely the savant of the strip, and though it's hardly the actor's fault, the love song Linus sings to his blanket isn't as imaginative as it sounds. But Kates gets great laughs with his deadpan deliveries. When Callahan's Lucy curls her fingers into a powerful fist as an example of her logic, Kates looks at his wimpy fingers and says with lovely innocence, "Why can't you guys get organized like that?"

It can't be easy for a grown man to play a cartoon legend like Snoopy, but Anthony Scimonelli manages to be perfectly carefree as the thoughtful dog. Scimonelli's little sister Natalie is cute as a button as Woodstock, as is 4-year-old Autumn Sage as Woodstock's sidekick, Sparky. (The swell animal costumes are by Denise Cumor.) The youngsters are not insignificant: Cuteness is a part of this show's appeal.

Although musical director Aaron Broderick's four-man pit band (placed behind a scrim at the back of the stage) sounds fine, the singing is so-so, at best. That's no great loss, since Gesner's bland little songs -- except for the wonderfully simple closer, "Happiness" -- are big disappointments. This is a far cry from the fabulous signature music Charlie Brown got from Vince Guaraldi on the TV specials; watching this show, it's hard to see how it was worth reviving (even with new songs) on Broadway last year.

Music aside, everything else is fine. Erik F. Rudolph has created an attractive playground set in the small Theatre Outback. There's a tree with a tiny bench around its circumference, a swing, a slide and, of course, Snoopy's doghouse. Kramer knows when to have her cast bounce around this set like giddy kids, and when to let these singular characters stand and say the humorous things they say.

It's a smart approach to this wisp of a musical, and the result -- at least for kids and nostalgic adults -- is as warm and fuzzy as Snoopy's face.

Howard County Community College's Student/Alumni group presents "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" in the Theatre Outback at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through May 14. A special understudy performance is scheduled May 13. Tickets: $8 general admission, $5 for students and seniors and Sunday matinees. Information: 410-772-4900.

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