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REVISED 'CHARLIE BROWN' GROWING INTO BIGGER MUSICAL
BYLINE: By Richard Christiansen, Tribune Chief Critic.
Whether the newly revised "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" will live up to its freshly coined subtitle as a "Broadway musical" remains to be seen; but here in Skokie, where it is appearing in the first of several pre-New York test engagements, it is happily at home, somewhere between the small pleasures of the tiny show it started out as in 1967 and the large expectations of the big-time musical it is trying to become for the 1998-99 theater season.
Expanding the show has not hurt it. The new scenery and costumes, by David Gallo and Michael Krass, respectively, are tastefully colored in the bright red, green, yellow and blue of the "Peanuts" comic strip on which the musical is based.
Within the dark framework formed by a blown-up page from the funny papers, the amusing and inventive settings open up a bright, sunlit world of childhood fun. They allow Snoopy, the dog, to soar through the air in pursuit of the elusive Red Baron while still perched on top of his doghouse; and they slide on the strip's iconic furniture and props--Schroeder's piano, Lucy's psychiatrist's stand and even Charlie Brown's distant kite--with reproductions that look like they've just come out of the comics.
There's a new character, Sally, Charlie Brown's sister, and there are several new bits that have replaced much of the show's original sketch material.
But the original songs by Clark Gesner, now accompanied by a five-member pit band, remain; and the basic approach to the material is the same: a series of songs, scenes and blackouts that repeat the humor and state the basic themes of Charles Schulz's beloved 49-year-old "Peanuts" strip: Snoopy's suppertime, Linus' security blanket, the gang's big baseball game, Schroeder's devotion to Beethoven, Lucy's obstreperousness and, at the center of it all, Charlie Brown's innocence and insecurity.
For the most part, the talented cast assembled for this version avoids the awful cutesiness that sometimes occurs when adults try to act like children--although Stanley Wayne Mathis is a little large for the diminutive Schroeder, and Roger Bart as the show-stopping, singing-dancing Snoopy needs to be leashed in a little. Snoopy may be silly, but he's not fey.
Anthony Rapp, fresh from "Rent," is an appealing, sandy-haired Charlie Brown, forever wide-eyed and walking eagerly ahead so that his head is a few inches in front of his body. And the overly qualified B.D. Wong as the thumb-sucking Linus has one of choreographer Jerry Mitchell's neatest routines. He dances with his blanket.
However, the show receives its best moments from its two female performers, Kristin Chenoweth as the pugnacious Sally and, above all, Ilana Levine as Lucy, the queen of crabbiness.
Chenoweth, the tight little curls in her blond wig bobbing, gets her big chance to sock over a song with "My New Philosophy," and she does it with impeccable pizazz. Levine, meanwhile, is just about perfect, whether threatening Linus with a knuckle sandwich or putting down Charlie Brown with a discouraging word. She has Lucy's mean little spirit down pat, her only false moment coming at the end of the show when she's forced to become goody-goody.
The work to be done on the show is fairly basic and obvious. Some of the blackout sketches, which last just about as long as it takes to read a daily strip, need to be punched up or replaced. The obnoxious screams of Charlie Brown and friends need to be muted or dropped altogether. The first-act curtain bit, about a valiant leaf on a tree branch, needs to be better timed or scrapped.
These are things director Michael Mayer and company can easily solve. Can they convince audiences that this (at its best) sweet show is indeed a Broadway musical? Who knows?
Until Saturday, however, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, they've got a nice show.
"You're a Good Man,
When: Through Saturday
Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Blvd.
GRAPHIC: PHOTOS 2PHOTO: The comic strip "Peanuts" comes alive
in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," being performed through Saturday
in a revised, musical production at the North Shore Center for the Performing
Arts.; PHOTO: Anthony Rapp is Charlie Brown and Ilana Levine as Lucy bring
"Peanuts" to life. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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