"Charlie Brown" is wholesome, forgettable

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Friday, January 1, 1999

By Judith Newmark
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

There's one terrific reason to see "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," the Broadway-bound show playing at The Fox: You're taking the children.

For young theater-goers, Clark Gesner's durable musical based on Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip makes a fine alternative to yet another revival of "Annie" or something-or-other on ice. It's wholesome, low-key, unpretentious. Director Michael Mayer and a polished cast do a thoroughly professional job of bringing the familiar characters to life.

Adult audiences, however, are another story - in large part because "Charlie Brown" doesn't have one.

It has greeting card messages, instead.

"Charlie Brown" is simply a series of vignettes about the characters - wishy-washy Charlie, bossy Lucy, etc. - dotted with forgettable songs. That's it. Period.

The overall effect is something like standing at the greeting card counter, trying to pick one to send. (Make it a "Peanuts" card.) Maybe you smile, maybe you chuckle, maybe one brings a lump to your throat.

But only an idiot stands there looking for continuity.

You also don't expect a greeting card to deliver keen intellectual insight or emotional resonance.

And frankly, you can't expect anything like continuity, insight or resonance from a show whose biggest hit is "Happiness." It's a list of what happiness is. Remember "Happiness is . . ."? The phrase, with all the sensitive nuance of a lava lamp, has not stood the test of time well. Actually, it only stood it for about five minutes in the first place.

"Happiness," however, is not the show's best number. Several offer lots more imagination. Linus (B.D. Wong) does a terrific Fred Astaire-style dance with his adored blanket, suavely choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. "Little Known Facts" is a comic highlight with its goofy explanations of natural phenomena (such as the way snow comes up, like flowers) presented by the radiantly self-assured Lucy (Ilana Levine).

Karen [that's KRISTIN. if you're going to pan something, at least do it accurately! sheesh. -ed.] Chenoweth is an adorable Sally, Stanley Wayne Mathis brings a serious manner and good voice to Schroeder, and Anthony Rapp is aptly colorless in the title role.

Roger Bart stands out as Snoopy, with his various guises as the World War I ace and Joe Cool, and also with his intense, canine enthusiasm. His big number, "Suppertime," is a real vaudeville turn, complete with hand-waving struts, and anyone who has ever fed a dog knows it is no exaggeration.

But it never adds up to much. At their best, the vignettes offer a winsome charm; at worst, they're inert. Mayer keeps the scenes moving briskly - but where are they going? Most of them are over before you can find out. There's not enough heft or direction for the major production (as opposed to a small, stylish revue) that this combination of talent and Broadway plans seems to promise.

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