The Peanuts gang on their bus. Sally by Lisa Lennox), Linus (Guillermo Urra), Lucy (Katherine Fadum), Schroeder (Jeremy Carver-James), and Snoopy (Scott Shpeley). Trudie Lee Photography
You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown
November 21 – December 30, 2012
Martha Cohen Theatre
Listen to my live review on CBC’s Eyeopener on Wednesday, November 28 and 8:20 am
The overwhelming thought I had heading into watch ATP’s holiday show, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, was that if the production in any way ruined Snoopy for me, I was never going to forgive them for it. I’m happy to report that my complete adoration of the feisty beagle is still intact and was possibly even enhanced by one actor’s fabulous performance. But puppy love aside, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is no more than a series of comic strip sketches disguised as a musical, giving audiences nothing but thin nostalgia or shallow first discovery to bite into. A bite so unsatisfying that even Snoopy wouldn’t bother.
The show, based on a 1999 Broadway remount of the 1967 original production introduces us to comic strip writer Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang. Or some of them anyway. Only six of the characters make the cut in the musical: The lovable loser Charlie Brown, his impetuous sister Sally Brown, the bossy and crabby Lucy Van Pelt and her younger brainy and blanet-loving brother Linus, Beethoven fanatic Schroeder and of course Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy. AWOL from the cast and story are characters such a Peppermint Patty, Pigpen and Snoopy’s sidekick Woodstock.
All hands are on deck in the opening number which sets up Charlie as a “good man” who questions his value and purpose and leaves him wondering, “When do all the good things start?” As I child I never once questioned Charlie Brown’s depressive state and self-hatred. It was just good comic strip fun to laugh at his misfortunes. As an adult I am struck time and time again at how terribly sad a character Charlie is and how his shame and fear speak to the insecurities in all of us. But this is a family musical, not a time for psychoanalysis and with Director Mark Bellamy’s quick direction and wonderfully spirited choreography along with Roger Schultz’s vibrant, colorful cartoon-like set design, the mood of the show is certainly all out fun.
Which is why it’s so disappointing when the fun never really fully materializes. Sure we get to see the characters doing their thing and there is great nostalgia in watching Lucy writhe on the piano lusting after Schroeder or Sally complaining about a bad grade or Linus being brainy. And there are some terrific musical numbers throughout the show. But none of this happens as part of an ongoing narrative. Instead what the production gives us are literal enactments of short cartoon strip gags with no continuing theme or storyline in sight. Some of this is alleviated by the fact that Schulz’s writing is still so witty that when a scene comprises solely of Linus walking onstage, sucking his thumb, taking it out of his mouth and declaring, “I think I lost my taste!” or when Snoopy is shown on top of his dog house musing, “Yesterday I was a dog, today I’m a dog, there is just so little room for advancement”, you can’t help but smile. But these flash card moments grow tiresome when that’s the only thing offered.
And what of the youngsters? Did they relate to this formula? I did hear a lot of giggles at the active gags in the show. But then I also heard a lot of silence during the more adult moments such as Schroeder’s musical number “Beethoven Day”, or Lucy’s rant about Socrates or Sally’s nod to Shakespeare. Whereas the adults seemed to have the most fun not in the action, but in the anticipation of what was to come – the rolling out of Schroeder’s piano, the wall Charlie and Linus rest on, Snoopy dressed as the Flying Ace. These were the moments that anyone over 30 reacted to the most. So who is the target audience for this show? To my mind, it misses both of them. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is neither comprehensive enough for the adult crowd wanting to experience a full story along the lines of the TV specials, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Nor is the show kid-friendly enough to really wow the younger set, many of whom I was told had no or little exposure to Charlie Brown previously and therefore no ingrained loved for the characters.
This is a shame because this hardworking cast did its best to bring the characters to life. Ron Pederson as Charlie, Jeremy Carver-James as Schroeder and Katherine Fadum as Lucy all did admirable jobs with the material they were given. They sang, they danced, and they played out the sketches with valiant talent. Guillermo Urra as Linus was wonderfully sweet in his naïve yet brainy delivery, but I do have to mention that there is something terribly creepy about watching grown man suck his thumb and lovingly caress his blanket without the slightest bit of irony.
However the night really belonged to Lisa Lennox (Sally) and Scot Shpeley (Snoopy). Affecting a high pitch girly voice, Lennox was a pure ball of energy on stage whose dance moves were only matched by her singing that occasionally dropped the little girl act to reveal a strong, powerful and beautiful voice I’d be happy to hear more of. Shpeley’s Snoopy was an act of pure physical and comedic genius. Whether on all fours or standing upright, Shpeley managed to be dog-like without losing the somewhat human air that Snoopy affects. And boy can he dance and sing. Shpeley’s big number “Suppertime” in the second act brought the house down and for me was the unmatched highlight of the whole evening. My one complaint about Shpeley has nothing to do with his performance but everything to do with his costuming. Snoopy had no ears. How could Snoopy have no ears? Shpeley was instead outfitted with a black painted nose and a black-brimmed white baseball cap worn backwards that I could only forgive through the force of his brilliant performance.
So between the lack of ears and more importantly, lack of story, in the end I have only two words to say about You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Good grief!
For the adults – Yes there is nostalgia, but no there isn’t a story. Yes there are good performances, but no they don’t really go anywhere with them. MAYBE SEE IT
For the kids – Yes there are giggles to be had but no, not all of it will be relatable. Yes there is singing and dancing but no, with a two hour run there isn’t enough to keep the really little ones interested. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkies – Shpeley and Lennox are terrific, but better to wait until they are cast in something far more interesting than this. SKIP IT