Nothing wishy-washy about Olney Theatre Center’s exuberant, child-sized production of the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Here, the Peanuts gang is rendered with such bright, broad strokes they seem to have leapt from the pen of Charles M. Schulz himself.
Olney’s version, choreographed and directed with sunshiny bravado by Stephen Nachamie, is based on the jazzed-up, topical Broadway revival from 1999 that won newcomer Kristin Chenoweth a Tony, not the down-to-earth, unaffected 1967 original production that starred “MASH’s” Gary Burghoff in the title role of the perpetually self-doubting Charlie Brown.
Mr. Nachamie even throws in some up-to-the-minute references to the group Maroon 5’s song “Move Like Jagger,” Lady Gaga and other pop culture icons to keep things fresh and possibly engage the kiddos who may not know Snoopy from Snoop Dogg. Yet, the charm of the Peanuts comic strip and the musical lies in its timeless innocence and the marvel of its encapsulation—the sometimes anxious, always wondrous everyday lives of children, an entire universe contained within four little boxes.
For the stage adaptation, composer and lyricist Clark Gesner is inspired by the comic-strip panel structure, keeping the songs and sketches quick and the action simple. Robert Andrew Kovach’s set design echoes this mandate with a colonnade of proscenium arches fashioned from excerpts of Mr. Schulz’s comic strips. The black and white motif is then heightened by scenery and backdrops that look like blown-up versions of the Sunday color comics—the iconic doodle-like clouds, Snoopy’s doghouse (a mysterious and opulent place every bit as fabled as Hef’s Playboy Mansion, only G-rated), the stone wall where Charlie Brown and Linus philosophize, the dreaded yellow school bus, Lucy’s psychiatry booth—all created in super-saturated, pop-art hues favored by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein. Seth Gilbert’s costumes complete the cartoon effect, with flawless and fun renditions of Mr. Schulz’s full-skirted dresses, saddle shoes, and striped t-shirts.
Amid this primary-colored world, Charlie Brown (Zack Colonna, pitch-perfect as the sweetly woebegone anti-hero) and his gang get through an ordinary day. Charlie Brown—wearing yellow pjs that feature his trademark zig-zag pattern at the waist—starts off worrying which part of the day would actually be the worst. It turns out that’s lunchtime, when he sits alone on a bench trying to attract the attention of his crush, the Little Red-Haired Girl, which he unwittingly accomplishes by putting his brown lunch bag over his head.
While Charlie Brown bumbles and despairs, the other characters navigate through a childhood blissfully free of adult presence—the rare times grown-ups pop up, they are represented by a wah-wah sound effect. The kids’ activities are expressed through amiable pop songs, ranging from Linus’ imaginative justifications for toting around a blanket (“My Blanket and Me”) and the chorale-inspired “Beethoven’s Day” to the infectious roundelay “The Book Report” that shows the various kids’ approaches to a looming homework assignment and “Little Known Facts,” a witty patter ditty in which Lucy imparts iffy information to her younger brother.
The bold and crabby Lucy (Janine Sunday, as spectacularly out-sized and definite as her character) barrels through life unencumbered by trepidation or low self-esteem, getting others to succumb to her will either by manipulation or curling her little hands into a fist. She runs hidebound over Charlie Brown and her blanket-cuddly little brother Linus (a tender and wise Paul Wyatt), but cannot bully her way into the affections of Schroeder (Vishal Vaidya), the Beethoven-worshipping young pianist.
Charlie Brown’s baby sister Sally (Jaime Kelton) tries to hold her own and assert herself in the confounding world of elementary school, first crushes, and sandlot baseball games. And then there’s Snoopy (played in Sunday’s performance by seemingly under-rehearsed understudy Patrick J. Prebula), the joy-rigged beagle who enjoys a dog’s life as well as a rich fantasy life. His big number is “Suppertime,” normally as boisterous as a wriggling puppy but in this case the too-cool-for-school Justin Timberlake approach dilutes the song’s runaway energy. Having Snoopy’s dog house light up in neon is a nice touch, however.
A further updating is problematic, pertaining to the role of Sally Brown. Miss Kelton plays her with an artificial sense of camp—with her platinum curly hair, tarty makeup and boop-boop-be-doo mannerisms, she’s Baby June from a show-biz family while her brother Charlie Brown and the other characters seem like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Sally is also curiously sexualized and vampish—wearing a too-tight dress and flashing her underwear—and when the disturbingly mature and paternal Mr. Vaidya’s Schroeder looms over her, the effect is (one hopes) unintentionally predatory rather than innocent.
As Charlie Brown would say, good grief.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner
Based on the comic strip by Charles M. Schulz
Directed and choreographed by Stephen Nachamie
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission