a Good Man, Charlie Brown':
A Nice Loser and His Gutsy Sister
By BEN BRANTLEY
NEW YORK -- Sally Brown is mad at the world, and if the world has any sense
at all, it will
stay out of her way. Though still on the fair side of 5, Sally has a highly developed sense of the
injustice and futility of life. Her indignation quotient is off the charts, and her mighty bleat of a voice
could bring down the walls of Jericho. She is not, perhaps, a child you would want to shepherd
through an afternoon at the mall, but on a Broadway stage, she is invaluable company.
Sally Brown is
portrayed by a small but definitely adult actress named
Kristin Chenoweth, who is giving one of those break-out performances
that send careers skyward in the revival of "You're a Good Man,
Charlie Brown," which opened Thursday night at the Ambassador
Theater. She is also the only significant reason for adults
unaccompanied by children to sit through this mild-mannered, sticky
evening of skits and songs inspired by Charles M. Schulz's long-running
"Peanuts" comic strip.
You see, Ms.
Chenoweth, playing someone who wasn't even a
character in the original Off-Broadway hit of the late 1960s, is
terrifically appealing, but her Sally is simply too strident, too angry, too
agitated to ever be considered merely cute. (Considering she wears a
mop of Shirley Temple curls, this is an accomplishment.)
A lack of conventional
cuteness was what allowed Schulz's dot-eyed, round-headed creatures to
conquer America in the 1950s. Admittedly, a comic strip that features a dog who fantasizes about
being a World War I flying ace can be long on whimsy. But Schulz also cannily created a world of
children shaped by an age of anxiety. The atomic bomb, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were
not usual topics of conversation in "Peanuts," but depression, rejection, sour stomachs and the
meaninglessness of existence were.
the ultimate loser, the boy who never received a Valentine or won a Little
baseball game, spoke directly to the nagging fears and self-doubts that many adults were beginning
to realize they would never outgrow. Yet he and his friends never seemed just like grown-ups in
kids' clothing. They were deliciously sui generis figures in a self-contained universe. Translating them
from pen and ink drawings into flesh and blood performances would seem to be impossible.
according to most reviews, this metamorphosis was achieved winningly when
Good Man, Charlie Brown," with songs by Clark Gesner and with Gary Burghoff (who went on to
play Radar in the film and television versions of "MASH") in the title role, opened Off Broadway at
the tiny Theater 80 St. Marks in 1967. A "small miracle" was how Walter Kerr, writing in The New
York Times, described the show. "Almost everything works," Kerr went on to say, "because almost
everything is effortless."
is exactly what this new incarnation, staged by Michael Mayer, is not.
production has been revised to incorporate new material from Schulz's strips, and, while most of
Gesner's original score remains, it has been extensively rearranged by Andrew Lippa, who also has
written several new songs. The problem isn't that the new material fails to mesh with the old, or even
that the original material feels particularly dated, though it does bring to mind the zippy, quick-take
revue format made popular by the old "Laugh-In" television series.
The real problem
is a matter of scale. "Charlie Brown" was created for an intimate space,
and it is
telling that when it reopened on Broadway in 1971, many critics felt that much of its original charm
had evaporated. For this version, the ever-inventive designer David Gallo has filled the Ambassador
stage with neon-crayon-color sets (matched by Michael Krass' costumes) that give an electric jolt to
the lines of Schulz's fabled draughtsmanship. But there's an uncomfortable feeling of dead air that the
cast, led by Anthony Rapp (of the original "Rent") as Charlie, must work much too hard to fill.
Songs that were
created as droll, low-key character portraits have been reconceived as
showstoppers, and the frail, winsome little bodies of these numbers just aren't up to the job. When
Linus (B.D. Wong) sings a duet with his famous security blanket, which has been wired to dance on
its own, the sequence has a flailing, improvised quality that is the stuff of actor's nightmares.
So does the song
in which Charlie Brown wrestles with a recalcitrant kite. What we should
focusing on is the poor fellow's exasperation, his sense of being eternally at odds with his
environment. Yet somehow, all I could see was the bobbing kite string that stretched across the
stage. Charlie Brown himself might as well have been invisible.
This has something
to do with Rapp's very strange conception of his part. The actor, who was
dynamo in "Rent," plays Charlie Brown not as an aggrieved, complaining target of the slings and
arrows of daily life, but as a passive, saintly innocent.
With his fixed
beatific smile, his hair flattened against his head and his eyes as sweetly
glazed as a
Krispy Kreme doughnut, he suggests those clean-cut young people who approach you in airports
with religious pamphlets. This is not a Charlie Brown that anyone, except possibly some New Age
cultist could identify with, and there is a hole where the show's empathic center should be.
the Beethoven-loving pianist, Stanley Wayne Mathis seems comparably
hard-pressed to find any real character to play. As the titanically crabby Lucy Van Pelt, Ilana Levine
gives a shtick-driven performance, hitting each word and each note as though with a mallet.
Wong, as a lisping
Linus, fares better, though he occasionally slides into preciousness. Roger
the plum role of Snoopy, the charismatic beagle, incorporates some delightful doglike mannerisms.
He does a nice job with the "Red Baron" number, which also offers the evening's most ingenious
visual effects. But his hymn to the joys of eating, "Suppertime," which should bring down the house,
is deflatingly oversold in both the staging and the orchestration.
Mayer has proven
himself a solid and resourceful director of dramas with the recent Broadway
productions of "A View From the Bridge" and "Side Man." But as he demonstrated in his staging of
"Triumph of Love," he is clearly less comfortable with musicals.
though cartoons, are a sly and subtle lot, and they don't benefit from
performances. Their sweetly neurotic souls get lost when their interpreters are beaming away like an
Up With People chorus. (The show's signature song, "Happiness," is, and always was, pure syrup.)
On the other
hand, it was Mayer who was largely responsible for shaping the interpolated
Sally and for casting Ms. Chenoweth in the part, and for that he deserves much credit. Debating
relentlessly with an unseen school teacher about receiving the grade of a C on her wire-hanger
sculpture, scowling at a hopelessly tangled jump rope or vengefully explaining to Snoopy that he is at
the bottom of the family's chain of command, Ms. Chenoweth's Sally finds a mega-volt
show-business energy in life's unresting siege of frustrations.
This is all conveyed
through postures that amazingly replicate the stances of Schulz's drawn
characters without seeming stiff (her accusatory extended arm is divine), and her shiny, perfectly
pitched voice seems a natural extension of her physical presence.
here is what it must have been like to catch a novice named Bernadette
up a musical spoof called "Dames at Sea" 30 years ago. Ms. Chenoweth has appeared in New
York before, most notably in "Steel Pier" and Encores' concert version of "Strike Up the Band," but
this is the part that should seal her reputation. This glow cast by a star-in-the-making gives a real
Broadway magic to a show that otherwise feels sadly shrunken in a Times Square theater.
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