Good grief
                  For a Way-Off Broadway preview, why not Skokie?

                  November 1998
                  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
                  see again.

                  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
                  Brown.' "

                  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
                  to us."

                  Jones is a Chicago freelance writer.

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