if the 'Peanuts' Gang Graduated to Cheeversville?
By VINCENT CANBY
N EW YORK -- That Charles Schulz doesn't rate an entry in the Oxford Companion
American Literature can only be explained as some ghastly oversight on the part of the
editors. It is true that Schulz is known primarily as a cartoonist. Yet he not only writes his own
scripts for "Peanuts," which first appeared in 1950; he also letters his own dialogue in the balloons
that float over his characters' heads. Not even John Cheever, John Updike or any of the other
esteemed chroniclers of life in the American suburbs and exurbs after World War II could make
such a claim. What, after all, do we mean when we speak of "a man of letters?"
In the meantime,
if you're looking for a gentle, wise, very
cheering entertainment, you couldn't do better than to
visit the Ambassador Theater to see the almost-new,
pocket-size musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie
Brown." This is Michael Mayer's revival of the 1967 Off
Broadway hit, based on the "Peanuts" comic strip, for
which Clark Gesner wrote the music, book and lyrics.
Among other things,
you will discover a blissfully sunny
alternate universe to the one of broken marriages, career
compromises, alcoholism, mental breakdowns (plus the
occasional redemption) that became so familiar in
American literature of the postwar years.
This isn't to
suggest for a minute that Schulz had any such ideas in mind when he created
born-to-lose Charlie Brown and the other members of the "Peanuts" gang. They remain forever
young in Schulz's static universe, where no one seems to be older than 10 and where the most poetic
mind among them is possessed by a beagle named Snoopy.
around them is generic and two-dimensional: a tree is a tree, a cloud a
doghouse a doghouse. Yet Schulz's characters are so accurately and eccentrically realized, you
suspect that if they ever grew up, they would be much like Cheever's, getting into boozy Saturday
night scrapes in a town with a name like Shady Hill. Charlie Brown and his friends may be children,
but they wear their neuroses with pride.
Think of Lucy,
a crabby child only too happy to tell someone the blunt, embarrassing truth,
madly in love with the piano-playing Schroeder and serenely unaware that, for him, she doesn't exist.
The adult Lucy will be the last to know her husband is sleeping with every woman in the
neighborhood except her. Schroeder will leave home hoping for a career as a concert artist, but he
will wind up playing the organ in any church that will have him. Then there is Linus, who walks
around clutching his beloved blanket, an embryonic fetishist's festishist if there ever was one.
little sister, Sally (who replaces the character of Patty in Mayer's revival
show), is all Shirley Temple corkscrew curls and simpering grins. But as played by the spectacularly
funny Kristin Chenoweth, she has a voice that is sharp enough to etch monograms into Baccarat
crystal. She will be Shady Hill's most successful fundraiser, at least in part because people will pay
her to stay away.
Dear sweet clumsy
Charlie Brown? He will drop out of college, run a hardware store, coach
second-rate Little League team and, in his middle years, start to (lower your voice so the children
can't hear) d-r-i-n-k. The most humane, least neurotic of the gang is Snoopy, and he will be long
gone by the time his old pals fall apart.
are not meant to belittle Schulz's classic strip, but to explain its long-term
accomplishment has been to create children who are recognizable both as children and as the adults
they will become. They are not exactly the kids next door. They live in a reality that is singular to the
It is this quality
that makes Mayer's "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" such an endearing
endeavor, a series of sketches intended to represent an average day in the life of Charlie Brown. In
most cases the members of the cast, never attempt to deny the evidence of their actual ages. Instead,
they play their roles straight, that is, from the inside out, without resorting to all-purpose kiddie
The results are
astonishing in several cases. Ms. Chenoweth's Sally is both a kid you might
swat if you had to live with her, and a personality who tomorrow could play Miss Adelaide in "Guys
and Dolls." She is magical on stage. So, too, is B.D. Wong, who made his Broadway debut in "M.
Butterfly" in 1988. Now in his later 30s, he appears to be having the time of his life giving a priceless
performance as the thumb-sucking, blanket-clutching, singing and dancing Linus. Not for a minute
does he disguise the man he is but, in him, Linus lives. How does he do it? I haven't a clue. That's
whose grating voice is also a superb musical comedy weapon, is enchanting
furrow-browed Lucy, as when she instructs Linus to study Charlie Brown's "Failure Face." "Notice
the deep lines," she says with nasty pleasure, "the dull, vacant look in the eyes."
Playing the show's
star beagle is Roger Bart, a marvelous clown whose manic energy and facial
expressions are reminiscent of Ronnie Graham's. He is an explosively comic joy as Snoopy, whether
doing imaginary battle with the Red Baron in the skies over France, lolling in the sun atop his
doghouse or anticipating the delights of his evening meal.
Mathis is as lively as his meager material allows in the role of Schroeder,
Anthony Rapp, a good actor you may remember as the camcorder operator in "Rent," appears to be
bewildered as Charlie Brown. The role is not especially rewarding, I suspect.
is a passive figure. He is diffident, lonely, apologetic, not easily brought
to active life
by someone who does not yet have his own idiosyncratic stage presence, such as a young Robert
Morse. Rapp's way is sometimes to play down to Charlie Brown, as in his taking small, childlike
steps, and at other times to play him as a more or less conventional musical comedy juvenile in the
middle of what is otherwise a cartoon.
the show's musical supervisor and arranger, has written new material for
some of the
Gesner songs and two new numbers of his own. The one you will remember: "My New Philosophy,"
in which Sally realizes that she can respond to almost any statement by saying "That's what you
think," and Schroeder decides that his comeback will be, "Why are you telling me?"
"You're a Good
Man, Charlie Brown" is small in scale, simply but effectively set in a
and demands a certain knowledge of and affection for Schulz's work. Mayer, whose last major
Broadway hit was the powerhouse revival of Arthur Miller's "View From the Bridge," is clearly a
man who likes to test his range.
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