YAGMCB hits St Louis

'Peanuts' gang blows in to The Fox

Sunday, December 27, 1998

By Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

CHICAGO * An updated revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" -- directed by theater hotshot Michael Mayer -- makes a stop in St. Louis before heading to Broadway.

They call "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" the show that everybody has been in, and Michael Mayer is no exception.

When he was a student at the University of Wisconsin, dreaming of a career on the stage, Michael Mayer played the impassioned 5-year-old pianist, Schroeder.

True, that was more than 20 years ago. It was before he had become the toastof Broadway. Before he was acclaimed as a director who could handle an impressive range of work, from serious drama to breezy musicals, from graceful period pieces to edgy Gen-X material.

Before he demonstrated the intellectual rigor and raw nerve that showed how exciting modern theater could be, without abandoning either intricate language or emotionally dense characters.

Before he decided that the best thing a director could be was a chameleon.

So Schroeder was a long time ago. "But I remember what it was like," said the award-winning director, toying with a bowl of oatmeal. It's breakfast, but Mayer is too worked up to have an appetite. It's tech week, the last rehearsals of "Charlie Brown" before the audience comes.

Mayer, who says he was aptly cast as the driven little musician, is no stranger to stress under the best of circumstances. Tech week's circumstances are never the best.Long before dawn, he was tossing and turning in his hotel bed, until he finally gave up, headed for the gym and pedaled a stationary bike until he was sure that physical exhaustion would guarantee a couple hours of the rest that his mental uproar had denied him.

"I am schizophrenic in tech," he confessed, trying to swallow a little cereal. "Everything I do is so good and so terrible, all at once. Oh, I am brilliant. Oh, I need to get a nursing school application in the mail right away, because my career is over." He shrugged. "I can't tell any more. It will be better when the audience is there. You learn so much then.

"But anyway, I remember that show. The audience flipped. There's that mordant sense of humor, the adult personality inside a child.

"And in the audience, there was this amazing demographic. Adults and children and cynical college students -- all of them responded. These characters are perfectly drawn. They are part of the Zeitgeist of the 20th century."

The Zeitgeist? We're still talking about a comic strip, right? Of course weare. But Michael Mayer, who is coming off a year of incredible successes, takes all his work seriously.

That was just what Fox Theatricals, the production company based in St. Louis and Chicago, and its partners were looking for when they decided to remount "Charlie Brown." Mayer is directing the show, which opens at the Fox Wednesday night. It's on a short national tour -- Chicago, St. Louis, Boston [no Boston --ed.] -- before its Broadway opening Feb. 11.

When it debuted in 1967, Clark Gesner's off-Broadway musical had an earnest sweetness, a youthful charm and an off-hand ensemble style that suited the times. A series of plotless vignettes, based on characters from Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip, captured a gentle sensibility that would reach its zenith a few seasons later, in 1971's "Godspell." It ran for an impressive five years.

With its easy production demands and its suitability for young casts, the show was destined for a long, still-flourishing life in high school, college and community theaters everywhere. (That's why everybody has been in it,including Anthony Rapp, the "Rent" star who is now playing Charlie Brown. When he was 7, he played Snoopy at camp.)

"Charlie Brown" did not, at first blush, seem destined for Broadway.

After the producers approached him, "I asked myself, how could that change?" Mayer explained. "I thought that if we could purge the show of some of the more dated references, and incorporate things that Schulz has done since then, with a sense of humor that's less topical and more refined, that would be fun. The script evolved, like America."

Working with Schulz, Mayer came up with a show that, though it is recognizably "Charlie Brown," differs considerably from the 1967 version. Some of the changes:

* The character Patty has been dropped, replaced by Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally. The first character was not Peppermint Patty; she was, Mayer says, "an amalgam of all the girls who weren't Lucy. She was just generic. "Sally is my favorite character now, the one who suffers from existentialangst. She's the one who says, 'I was jumping rope and everything was fine, and then suddenly it all seemed so futile.' She opens up a lot of possibilities." Sally has a new song, too.

* Though it's no "Sunset Boulevard," the show has a much more polished look than it did on its first outing. The costumes by Michael Krass and set designs by David Gallo are an homage to Schulz that echo his cozy, slightly disheveled style in crayon colors. The set pieces are oversized, turning adult actors into child-sized cartoons. For example, the sofa where Linus and Lucy watch TV is about 8 feet high.

And when Snoopy imagines himself a World War I flying ace battling the Red Baron, a panel behind him reveals changing scenes of the sky around him and the French countryside far below.

"In 1967, they didn't have the technology or the rights to do those things," Mayer said. "They couldn't render Schulz on stage. I wanted to make sure this production would capture him."

* The cast is a little older than usual for this show (which wouldn't be hard), and the performers do not necessarily look like the cartoon characters they portray. B.D. Wong, who plays Linus, is Asian; Stanley Wayne Mathis, who plays Schroeder, is black.

Mayer says he was less concerned about finding actors who bore a physical resemblance to the cartoon characters than finding actors who resonated with those characters psychologically. "I did not go in saying we have to have a multiracial cast," he explained. "But I wanted it to be as open as possible, in order to find actors who were right for the parts.

"That (mix) is what America is now. Well, America was always that. But now we can acknowledge that diversity and honor that difference.

" 'Charlie Brown' is a play about acceptance and inclusiveness. I know this sounds corny, but happiness really is two kinds of ice cream, five colors of crayons -- not one. Happiness is anyone or anything at all that is loved by you. I can think of no message that is more inclusive, more far-reaching, than that is.

"Personally, as someone trying to figure it all out at the end of the millennium, I think it is a beautiful message -- and one that comes from characters that we have all grown up with."

Nevertheless, "Charlie Brown" is quite a contrast to Mayer's current Broadway show, "Side Man," a sensitive drama about the fractured private lives of swing musicians in the years after World War II. And that show, which stars Christian Slater, is a contrast to his recent off-Broadway hit, "Stupid Kids, Baby Anger," a play whose MTV-age sensibility is so strong, some said it made "Rent" look like Noel Coward.

But then again, there were worlds separating the two shows that marked Mayer's Broadway debut, both last season. "Triumph of Love," a sophisticated musical set in the 18th century, won good reviews but only small audiences; it didn't last. "A View from the Bridge," a revival of Arthur Miller's 1956 tragedy, was expected to be an off-Broadway treat for those of literary sensibilities. Instead, Mayer's searing, vivacious rendering of the gripping drama about love and betrayal in an Italian-American family riveted audiences, moved to Broadway and picked up a slew of awards, including Tonysfor the leading man, Anthony LaPaglia, and for best revival.

There's no sense looking for unifying threads, Mayer cautions; there aren't any. "Remember," he says, "I didn't expect any of this stuff.

"I had hoped 'Triumph' would continue -- I loved it so passionately. 'Side Man' was supposed to run off-Broadway for three weeks -- which was how it started -- and 'View' for six weeks. 'Stupid Kids' was just a promise I made to a friend, the playwright (Peter Hedges), before he died. It wasn't supposed to last, either.

"When I started 'Charlie Brown,' I had no idea it would follow this intensive year of work. But it seems like a strange choice only in hindsight. This was a good year for moving up."

Looking back, Mayer thinks, he has been moving up all along -- mainly up into a successful career as a director after a disastrous career as an actor.Growing up in Washington, a self-described "homosexual leftist Jew" who came from "real good lefty stock," he developed a love of theater that he carried into adult life. "All I wanted was to be an actor," he sighed, "to do musicals on Broadway.

"But as an actor, I could not get a job." He was, he says simply, absolutely terrible.

He leans back and smiles. It's worked out after all. "It was probably the limitations of my acting ability that provided me with such rich bad-directing experiences," he said. "It was a little life lesson in what not to do.

"You have to have tunnel vision to act, to be into your character all night long. I couldn't do it. I kept thinking, why is the set this color? Why is that line here? What is this play about? The whole thing."

In other words, he started looking at plays not as a performer, but as a director.And as a director, opportunities came his way. First he directed Genet's "The Maids" ("I'm sure it was bad"), then "Cloud Nine," "J.B." and "Bent." He directed the national tour of "Angels in America" the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by his good friend, Tony Kushner. ("That was the best job ever, taking that to America," Mayer said. The production played the Fox in 1996.)

"Remember, I had studied acting. I never studied directing. I took whatever I could. I worked hard, cobbling together a career. I fell into a pattern of eclectic work, and I fought it because I thought I had no identity.

"But in hindsight, I see I was fortunate to have such disparate shows offered to me. It's so easy to get pegged. You do something -- Shakespeare, edgy working-class British plays, whatever -- and you really click. You're hot.

"And then you try to branch out, and you can't. You're pegged. But that never happened to me."Instead, a miracle happened. I made my Broadway debut in one season with a musical, 'Triumph of Love,' and a drama, the revival of 'A View from the Bridge.'

"Then I had an identity: a chameleon."

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