Charlie Brown's angst gets a musical lift

`Peanuts' gang comes to life, with its many trials, in production at Howard Community College

Theater review

December 08, 2006|By William Hyder | William Hyder,special to the sun

A stage musical about a bunch of kids, with never a grown-up in sight? That was a new idea in 1967, but an unknown writer-composer named Clark Gesner pulled off the trick with astonishing success.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown debuted in an off-Broadway theater and stayed there for 1,597 performances. Road companies took the show around the country for years.

It's still being performed to enthusiastic audiences, as is demonstrated by the Student-Alumni Arts Production at Howard Community College, which runs through Dec. 17.

"Peanuts," the basis for Gesner's work, first appeared in newspapers in 1950. It took cartoonist Charles Schulz years to find the right direction and tone for his kiddie characters. By the 1960s, he was on track and his strip became a national institution.

Something about the personality of Charlie Brown -- well-meaning but insecure, unlucky but ever hopeful -- resonated with millions of people.

Readers also took to the supporting characters: Lucy, bad-tempered and domineering, but hopelessly in love with Schroeder; Schroeder, loving only Beethoven and somehow getting concert-level music out of a toy piano; Linus, Lucy's younger but smarter brother, stoically enduring her bullying.

And, for a touch of surrealism, Snoopy, a beagle with a lively fantasy life.

Schulz died in 2000, but reruns of "Peanuts" are still appearing in many newspapers. The world he created has a special flavor that Gesner transplanted into his script by sticking closely to Schulz's situations and dialogue.

There's no story, just a series of incidents. The opening number sets the tone of the show. Charlie Brown is discovered sitting alone on a bench while the other children, in the background, catalog his shortcomings.

Later scenes show him trying to get a kite off the ground, psyching himself up to speak to the little red-haired girl he has a crush on, leading his baseball team to inevitable defeat.

We see Linus terrified by the loss of his security blanket, Lucy playing psychiatrist and giving unhelpful advice to Charlie Brown, all the kids wrestling -- in their individual ways -- with a book report on Peter Rabbit.

And we see Snoopy interacting with his bird pal, Woodstock, resisting Patty's insistence that a beagle is supposed to chase rabbits, rejoicing over his full dinner bowl, fantasizing about being a World War I air ace.

There's no high drama anywhere, but the situations are basically human. The way the kids (and even Snoopy) behave isn't so different from the way adults behave.

Although none of Gesner's musical numbers became a hit outside the show, his score is effective, varied and appropriate to the characters and action.

Darius McKeiver makes the put-upon Charlie Brown believable and likable. His delivery is perhaps too whiny; Charlie Brown, after all, is always resigned to the bruisings of life.

McKeiver's expressive face takes the character through a range of emotions, missing only the blank, Jack Benny-like look Charlie Brown gets when some happening or remark leaves him speechless.

Lucy, domineering and crabby, is vividly portrayed by Vanessa Kinzey.

In a virtuoso performance, Danny Townsend is a sassy Snoopy, alive with movement and dance and speaking in a bewildering range of dialects. Autumn Sage Wissinger plays his nonspeaking bird friend, Woodstock.

Jamie Driskill, Christopher Adams and Madison Bahr do good work as Linus, Schroeder and Patty, respectively.

The little red-haired girl, spoken of in the comic strip but never seen, is a presence in the show. The role gives Lauren Danzig some nice bits of pantomime.

Playing the rest of the "Peanuts" gang are Ashanti Cooper (Frieda), Candace Cooper (Violet), Melissa Ivester (Sally Brown), Erin MacDonald (Marcie), Carol McNeely (Eudora), Mike Sachs (Shermy), Gavin Shown (Rerun) and Chris Sisson (Pigpen).

The simple, effective set by William M. Yarbrough III has a low brick wall, a bench, a swing, what might be a treehouse, and of course Snoopy's doghouse.

Director Susan G. Kramer makes sure everyone in the cast speaks and moves like kids. She has turned out a sweet little show, nicely done by some talented young people.

The Student-Alumni Arts Production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is being presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 17 in the Black Box Theater at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15; $12 for senior citizens and groups; and $10 for students with identification. 410-772-4515 or visit Reservations: 410-772-4900, Ext. 0.

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