Before Broadway, "Charlie Brown" hits Detroit

Free Press Theater Critic

We listen to "Happiness," the closing song of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," and we hear all about how happiness is two kinds of ice cream and five different crayons.

Michael Mayer listens to "Happiness," and he hears the eloquence of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, the part about securing the blessings of liberty.

This may explain why Mayer is directing the new Broadway-bound production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" and the rest of us are not. (The fact that Mayer directed last year's Tony-winning revival of "A View from the Bridge" and this season's highly praised "Side Man" also helped.)

The revised "Charlie Brown" will be at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit from Wednesday through Dec. 27. We, the people, will have a chance to see it being fine-tuned and newly tuned in a preamble to its Broadway run.

Since its off-Broadway premiere in 1967, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" has been done by schools, camps, regional theaters, community theaters, college theaters "and every synagogue and every YMCA group," but it's never been done on Broadway, Mayer says. At least it's never been freshly conceived as a Broadway show. There was a Broadway staging of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" that opened and closed in June 1971. It was at the John Golden Theater, where Mayer's "Side Man" is currently ensconced.

"My question isn't 'Why Broadway?' My question," says Mayer, 38, "is 'Why Broadway now?' " Naturally, he has an answer.

"The second half of this century," Mayer says, "was captured by artists who created characters indelibly linked to a postwar mentality. No characters have retained their hold on our consciousness as long as the 'Peanuts' characters." Charles Schulz's comic strip first appeared in 1950. "The 'Peanuts' characters really have a unique place in our idea of who we are as Americans," Mayer says. "It's almost mythological; we know everything about Pigpen and Peppermint Patty and Woodstock, and these aren't even the most famous ones."

And you don't confine the stuff of legends solely to small stages and school auditoriums.

Moreover, a lot has changed -- in "Peanuts" and in real life -- since author-composer Clark Gesner transformed Schulz's comic strip into a musical. For one thing, Mayer noted, the musical ("a wonderful show") was frozen in time 32 years ago, whereas Schulz has continued to draw the strip and it continues to evolve. Mayer wanted to incorporate Schulz's more recent work, so he and his colleagues have made some changes -- with the blessings of both Schulz and Gesner. No, Charlie Brown doesn't become assertive, and Lucy doesn't turn into Ms. Congeniality.

But there are new sets, new effects (think flying doghouse) and new dialogue, not to mention a couple of new songs by musical director Andrew Lippa, 33, an Oak Park native and University of Michigan graduate. One song is already in the show. Another will make its debut on opening night at the Fisher. Hint: Mayer really likes Schroeder, the "Peanuts" gang's intense pianist. Mayer played Schroeder in a student production at the University of Wisconsin. Opening night is Beethoven's birthday.

"That was the carrot," Lippa says. "The possibility of me being able to write a new song" was a major enticement, although "I wouldn't have taken the show if I didn't like the material." Ultimately, "the one song turned into two" and a third Lippa tune may be added before the show goes to New York. "That's TBD," Lippa says, meaning "to be decided."

"If someone else were to do this to my work 30 years later, I would hope they would be respectful," Lippa says. "That was my goal." But turning it into a Broadway show meant that the musical needed a few more songs, he said.

The whole show needed to be fresh, Mayer says. "I couldn't just put on the same show that everyone had seen. I really had the freedom to re-treat it." However, he says, "I'm using all the same source material."

Mayer's goal was to honor the strip, says Anthony Rapp, who plays Charlie Brown and who is best known for having played Mark, one of the two starring roles, in the original cast of "Rent."

But all the changes don't destroy the simplicity," Rapp continues. "It's not a spectacle. It's about little people going through some very real stuff."

"Charlie Brown" is a great change of pace from "Rent," says Rapp, 27, although the two musicals "share a lot in common. Both worlds are very much about heart and truth and love and overcoming adversity. The stakes are much higher in 'Rent;' Mark is documenting his dying friends." But a sense of community is central to both shows.

Speaking of community, "I don't think there's a person in show business who hasn't done a thing with 'You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown,' " Lippa suggests. Mayer, as mentioned previously, portrayed Schroeder in college. As a teacher, Lippa was musical director of a school production of the show. Rapp played Snoopy in a summer camp production when he was 7.

That was just a couple of years before Rapp turned pro, snagging a paid gig in the children's chorus of "Evita." For the most part, he has kept busy as an actor ever since, although his part in the hit movie "Twister" was cut out of the finished product. Which sounds like ideal preparation for playing Charlie Brown.

and a review...

It's a good show, made even better

BY MARTIN F. KOHN Free Press Theater Critic

Serving as the curtain for the Broadway-size, Broadway-bound production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" is a huge panel that looks like a yellowed newspaper comics page from, oh, about 1950. That would be the year Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" first appeared in the funny papers. An advertisement offers to "electrify your old treadle machine" (for $12.95) and displays before and after pictures of a sewing machine.

'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown'

4 out of 4 stars

Electrifying audiences at the Fisher Theatre, slapping smiles on their faces and sending them humming into the cold December air is this expanded production, which is the "after" version of the original. It is Clark Gesner's 1967 off-Broadway hit redesigned, reimagined and reinvigorated with new dialogue and two new tunes, all G-rated.

Principal renovators are director Michael Mayer, set designer David Gallo and music supervisor Andrew Lippa who provide, respectively, the new skits, the new look and the new songs. The finished product -- and it does appear to be almost complete prior to its January previews in New York -- is big, bold, bright and colorful, a living cartoon with oversize props and the kind of lighting that in a department store display case would tempt you to buy two of everything.

Yet it retains the intimacy and humor that has made "Charlie Brown" a staple of the school, community and regional theater repertoire for decades.

There are still six actors playing six characters: Sally, Schroeder, Linus, Snoopy, Lucy and Charlie Brown. Purists may note that the show's original non-Lucy female was Patty. Sally, Charlie's sister, happens to be Mayer's favorite "Peanuts" character.

Sally, played sublimely by Kristin Chenoweth in a curly wig as kind of a petulant Shirley Temple, has some of the show's finest moments, among them a hilarious skit in which she and Snoopy (Roger Bart) go chasing rabbits to theme song fragments from "Peter Gunn," "Mission: Impossible" and "Hawaii 5-0."

Chenoweth, whose vocal range seems to cover everything from Lisa Simpson to grand opera, also gets one of the new songs, "My New Philosophy" (with Stanley Wayne Mathis as Schroeder), a dandy 1920s number that deserves a socko finish, but just sort of ends instead.

The other new tune is Schroeder's, the sparkling "Beethoven Day" in which he takes the 5th (Symphony) and turns it into a Motown-style appeal to make Beethoven's birthday a national holiday.

The more familiar bits and songs are similarly fresh. Bart is sensational in Snoopy's big song-and-dance number, "Suppertime" (I suggest there should have been an encore), and in "The Red Baron." Affecting an English accent and the requisite doglike growls and yips, Bart captures Snoopy's World War I flying ace persona. Gallo's scenery performs some aerobatic magic of its own, creating a sense of flight more intriguing than if Snoopy were to swing above the stage on a wire.

Anthony Rapp as Charlie, B.D. Wong as Linus and Ilana Levine as Lucy bring out their characters' idiosyncrasies with panache. All are endearing as they face those eternal verities of life and "Peanuts" baseball, homework, kite-flying, the need for a security blanket and the desire to be noticed by a certain little red-haired girl.

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