For a Way-Off Broadway preview, why not Skokie?
Metromix (Chicago online service, this article may have run in the Chicago Tribune)
By Chris Jones
"You're a Good Man, Charlie
Brown" can be found on a
suburban Chicago stage this
week. And that's about as
unusual as Linus grabbing for
his security blanket or Lucy
behaving like a spoiled brat.
In the 31 years that have
elapsed since Clark Gesner's
musical was first produced Off-Broadway at
Theatre 80 St. Marks, there have been more than
30,000 North American productions (and plenty
abroad) of this cheap and cheerful show based on
Charles M. Schulz's beloved comic strip,
"Peanuts." Originally scored for toy piano and
drums (no kidding) and easily staged with a few
blocks and a few kids--or overgrown kids--in
sweaters and shorts, "You're a Good Man,
Charlie Brown" is a familiar theatrical endeavor of
American community and high-school theater.
"This show," allows its original producer, Gene
Persson, "has become the first theatrical
experience that most kids have in his country."
Perhaps. But among the kinds of self-designated
theatrical sophisticates who buy lots of expensive
theater tickets, the very mention of the title evokes
rolled eyes and a condescending simper. This is
the literal stuff of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and
the musical's score (the non-titular hits are
"Suppertime" and "Happiness") does not exactly
harmonize with Sondheim-esque complexity. Up
until now, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"
has been a safe and sweet show that almost
everyone has seen before--and far fewer want to
So what on earth are B.D. Wong (the original star
of "M Butterfly"), Anthony Rapp (one of the
original stars of "Rent") and Michael Mayer (one
of America's hottest young directors) all doing at
the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in
Skokie through Nov. 28? Amazingly enough, this
lofty group of young theatrical powerhouses are
preparing the 1967 Peanuts musical for its grand
debut on the Great White Way after a short tour
to Wilmington, Del., Detroit, St. Louis and
Boston. The initial, and quiet, Skokie gig is the
fledgling New York-bound show's first tryout
(well away from prying New York critics). But
barring unforeseen disasters on the road, its
January arrival at the Longacre Theatre on West
48th Street is already set.
"You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" opening on
the Broadway of 1999? Well, good grief.
So why did the Chicago-based producer, Michael
Leavitt, pick such a creaking musical chestnut for
Fox Theatrical's biggest and riskiest foray to date
into the dangerous world of Broadway producing?
And does he (not to mention Persson, who has
some money in the new version too) seriously
expect folks to pony up $75 on Broadway
($46-48 in Skokie) to watch a revamped
singing-and-dancing comic strip?
You bet he does.
"I've always loved Peanuts," Leavitt says. "We
learned early on in this process that everyone in
America relates to one of the six characters in this
show. It transcends every ethnic stereotype."
One cannot, of course, discount the popular
appeal of theatrical musicals based on comics.
Based on the popular cartoon stripcreated by Al
Capp, "L'il Abner" ran for over 600 performances
when it was first performed on Broadway in 1956
(the show was successfully revived, concert-style,
in New York last season). And even if
cartoon-based camp shows like "It's a Bird! It's a
Plane! It's Superman!" have thankfully now been
forgotten, a certain red-headed, iron-lunged
orphan (with pooch) still sells masses of ticket
wherever she may warble.
And as for the Peanuts strip itself, it's now been
around for 49 years (the golden anniversary next
year is, in part, what sparked this revival), has
spawned a legion of TV specials, and is reportedly
read by some 355 million people. It's without
doubt the most recognized cartoon strip in the
world. And on Broadway, such a beloved (and,
more importantly, familiar) source can provide a
potential audience with a vital emotional entree.
It also helps snag hip stars with a lust for, well,
kinder, gentler theater.
"I played Snoopy when I was 7 years old," says
Anthony Rapp, recklessly dashing his
"Rent"-induced street credibility in favor of playing
a hand-drawn kid with a really big, round head.
"In this cynical time, there aren't many shows that
bring sheer, unadulterated pleasure. It operates
from a place of honesty, heart and truth.
Even Mayer (who previously directed the chic
"Side Man" in New York and the very
un-cartoonish "Angels in America" in Chicago)
sounds like a small child when he talks about the
singing Snoopy et al.
"I played the record over and over when I was
10," he enthuses. "It's so sweet."
But even as they ooze nostalgic sentiment, these
men know very well that the dated show will have
no chance on this level of production unless it's
given a major whack into the present. And if the
creative team is to be believed, that's exactly
what's slated to happen in Skokie.
"This will not be," says Mayer, managing
remarkable gravitas, "your father's `Charlie
Although the precise content of this show is still
very much an unknown, the most significant
differences expected for this previewing revival
include a multiracial cast (a foreign concept when
the show was first produced), bringing to life an
Asian-American Linus (Wong) and an
African-American Schroeder (Stanley Wayne
Mathis). The Day-Glo rehearsal blocks and
turtleneck sweaters are out--in their place will be
what Mayer describes as "fully-realized costumes
and scenic environments" (the work of Michael
Krass and David Gallo.
The book of the show has been given a major
(and anonymous) overhaul, all of the
orchestrations are new and enlarged, and there
will be a least one entirely fresh musical number
(assuming it works in previews).
Most interesting of all, the fixers (with input from
Schulz himself) have created an completely new
theatrical character--Charlie Brown's laconic little
sister, Sally (Kristin Chenoweth). That addition
should solve a long-standing problem with this
show, written well before the appearance in the
Peanuts strip of Peppermint Pattie.
While there was always a Pattie in the theatrical
show, she was not the beloved peppermint variety
but an all-purpose amalgam of most of Schulz's
non-Lucy female characters. The new version
nixes generic Pattie in favor of the emotionally
challenged but avowedly specific Sally (who gets
the big new number with Schroeder). And the
irascible Lucy (now played by Ilana Levine)
thankfully came through the revisions unscathed.
"Our point here," says Mayer, "is not to turn the
music into rap or destroy the charm and simplicity
of the material. We're just trying to reinterpret the
show, make it fresh, and bring it into the 1990s."
"I just hope," says Rapp, with the moralistic air of
a man with a cause (and perhaps betraying some
of the same insecurity as the kid whom Valentine's
Day always passed by), "that people here are nice
Jones is a Chicago freelance writer.
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