BY HEDY WEISS THEATER CRITIC
While contemporary comic strip sensibilities may lean toward the funkily lowbrow Simpson family and that retrograde duo of Beavis and Butthead, there is still a vast audience for Charles M. Schulz's rueful, breezily philosophical Peanuts gang, which first appeared in newspapers nearly a half-century ago.
And the appeal of the six principal button-faced inhabitants of Schulz's droll, wistful world assume a colorful third dimension in ``You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'' the newly revised musical now in a brief pre-Broadway run at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
The show, with a blithe little book and serviceable but unexceptional music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, was first produced in 1967 in a modest Off-Broadway edition. It has now been significantly revised by director Michael Mayer to include 29 new strips (only 13 remain from the original), plus a beefed up role for Sally (Charlie Brown's feisty younger sister), who also gets a winning new song written by music arranger Andrew Lippa.
David Gallo's crayon-bright sets, Michael Krass' emblematic costumes, which almost seem to be outlined in inky black, and Kenneth Posner's color-enhancing lighting also are new. And they add a slickness that happily never overwhelms the comic strip's essential simplicity and graphically clean charm.
All the familiar characters are in place: Charlie Brown (Anthony Rapp of ``Rent''), the pale, inept sad sack with a deep depressive streak and a full-to-bursting heart; Sally (the dynamite Kristin Chenoweth), who possesses a brashness quite alien to her brother; Lucy (played to perfection by Ilana Levine), the wildly obnoxious, manipulative, would-be queen of the world; Linus (B.D. Wong), the blanket-toting philosopher who is her unlikely younger brother, and Schroeder (Stanley Wayne Mathis), the artist of the bunch, who is in love with Beethoven. And of course there's the irrepressible Snoopy (the show-stealing Roger Bart), the beagle whose flying ace fantasies lead him to pursue the infamous Red Baron. (Bart brings the house down with ``Suppertime,'' a jazzy, Jolsonlike ode to a meal-in-a-bowl.)
Mayer (whose credits include the national touring company production of ``Angels in America'' that began in Chicago) has orchestrated it all with flair, and with deft, larger-than-life brushstrokes that are happily free of cuteness. And choreographer Jerry Mitchell has clearly worked with the actors to create body language that precisely embodies their characters. It's all quite seamless, so it's hard to tell who, for example, suggested that Lucy slide across the top of a miniature grand piano in her attempt to seduce Schroeder. It's a delicious moment.
Chicago is the first stop for this production which is headed for Wilmington, Del., Detroit and St. Louis before a February opening at Broadway's Longacre Theatre.
Broadway, however, may be a mistake. The small pleasures and winning
ways of this show aside, audiences may not want to plunk down $65 for a
ticket to a show that would be far better served by an intimate Off-Broadway
setting where prices could be cut in half and the small, boxy intimacy
of the comic strip world would be preserved.
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