December 14, 1998 - December 20, 1998




There are many difficulties inherent in transforming "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," a charming but dated little staple of community theater, into a contemporary Broadway musical. To do so takes a combination of Lucy's hubris and Charlie Brown's masochistic streak. For although Snoopy and his still-lovable human pals have all been given a truly spiffy visual look and a big-ticket ensemble to play them, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" remains dogged by a thin score, an updated but often flat book needing a jolt of dramatic unity, and a cast struggling to find a unified comic style.

That said (good grief!), most of the changes made by director Michael Mayer to Clark Gesner's 31-year-old cash cow have been in the right direction. There will need to be many more fast additions and revisions if the show is to attract a theatrical audience beyond high school glee club alumnae (who once sang about "Happiness") and die-hard Peanuts fans (who are used to seeing the cartoon characters in newspapers, on TV and greeting cards without having to drop $ 70).

Aside from a laudably multicultural approach to casting, unlike 1967's version, the most noticeable and useful change here is the addition of a character from the cartoons who was not in the original show --- Charlie Brown's laconic little sister Sally. She replaces the old show's generic Pattie (not the beloved Peppermint variety, who joined the strip after the theatrical show was written, but an all-purpose amalgam of any female Peanuts character that was not Lucy).

This new character may work so well because of the knockout performance of Kristin Chenoweth, the one member of this cast of six who seems completely comfortable in the skin of her little kid. Together with Stanley Wayne Mathis' Schroeder, Sally gets the one new number, "My New Philosophy," a zesty little ditty that helps pick up the pace in the second act.

That delightful new song is written by Andrew Lippa (Gesner declined the producers' offers to update the show, although he retains rights of approval), and the show could use more of such material, whoever the author. The weaker first act badly needs an ensemble closer, and a couple of new ballads or specialty numbers would also help. In an era heavy with through-sung shows, this repriseless slate of 14 short numbers will not now adequately fill out a Broadway evening.

The spoken text is, of course, still derived entirely from the words of Charles M. Schulz, even though Mayer has slotted in several more contemporary strips in a heavily revised book for which he takes no official credit. While many of the long-established sections are still amusingly familiar (such as Snoopy's Red Baron fantasies or the tendency of the mail deliverer to overlook Charlie Brown on Valentine's Day), one wishes Mayer had organized the new stuff with more dramatic focus, especially in the sketchy first act. The seemingly endless progression of episodic skits and quick jokes becomes dull and repetitive long before intermission.

That may be especially noticeable because many of the performers are still fishing around for the roots of their characters --- and they delve into their parts with vastly differing levels of verisimilitude and seriousness. This show is deceptively difficult: Not only are grown-ups playing children, but the humor behind the comic strip is based mainly on the incongruity of kids having the neuroses of adults.

B.D. Wong's thumb-sucking Linus goes for the sweetly regressive approach, while Mathis' haphazard Schroeder seems so perpetually angry that he forgets to hit any of the necessary punchlines. Ilana Levine's acerbic Lucy has some funny moments, but if this nasty little kid has any vulnerability, we sure don't see it here.

As Snoopy, the potentially excellent Roger Bart is splendidly exuberant in the newly revamped "Suppertime," but at other points he seems uncomfortable and held back on some kind of invisible creative leash. Only Chenoweth captures the ways in which little kids commit to weird ideas, change and then commit to the opposite. Her funny spark is the best thing about this show.

Surprisingly, the most problematic perf is Anthony Rapp's as Charlie Brown. Although he looks quite like the familiar fellow, Rapp plays this world-weary youngster as a premature manic depressive, missing the character's necessary spark and most of his charm. Given that most everyone has been spurned by a Little Red Headed Girl (or Boy) at some point(s) in life, the titular character is our way into the show. But instead of seeing a reflection of ourselves at a vulnerable time, we tend to stand outside CB's problems. That, above all else, has to change.

If the humans are still struggling with these aging cartoon creations, the designers apparently understood what needed to be done. David Gallo's, er, cartoonish settings are splendid pieces of hip whimsy, with highlights including a cyclorama that spins along with Snoopy's fantasies and some deliciously outsized furniture. The show is splendidly lit by Kenneth Posner, and Michael Krass' costumes are simple, sweet and contemporary.

So with the tech elements in great shape, the creative team might concentrate on churning out some new songs, giving the book more thematic unity and agreeing on an overall performance style. Unless all that happens before Broadway, the producers might be needing a supply of security blankets.

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