A citizen of Santa Rosa who criticizes anything Charles Schulz / “Peanuts”- related runs the risk of being run out of town on the next Smart Train. This theatre critic took on that risk and attended the opening night performance of the 6th Street Playhouse production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I’m happy to report that I won’t be taking an unscheduled rail trip anytime soon.
Simplicity was one of the keys to the success of Schulz’s creation – simplicity of drawing, simplicity of character, simplicity of style. This simplicity masked the complexity of emotions and behaviors that Schulz was able to address in his long-running comic strip.
Director Marty Pistone honors both the simplicity and complexity of Schulz’s style with his sure-footed direction of this production. His diverse cast, while bearing slight physical resemblance to the world-renowned characters, captures each one’s inner character – Dominic Williams’ angst-ridden Charlie Brown, Cooper Bennett’s quiet but self-assured intellectual Linus, Amy Webber’s alpha-crab Lucy, Robert Finney’s musically-focused Schroeder, Katie Kelley’s frustrated at the world’s injustices Sally, and Eric Weiss’s manic puppy Snoopy – with assistance from some basic costuming and an occasional wig.
It’s the 50th anniversary of the original off-Broadway production which was itself a sort of spin-off of an original “concept” album by Clark Gesner. A 1999 Broadway revival brought three additional songs by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family). The show itself is a series of vignettes, live comic strip panels if you will, which cover familiar “Peanuts” territory. The kite-eating tree, the baseball game, Lucy’s Psychiatric Help Booth, Schroeder’s piano, the little red-headed girl (Siena Warnert) and Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel all make appearances. Music often accompanied these scenes with music director Ginger Beavers and a small four-piece orchestra performing such titles as “The Kite”, “The Doctor is In”, and “Happiness”.
Musical highlights included the charming “My Blanket and Me” featuring Bennett’s Linus dancing with his baby blue security blanket (Warnert), and the joyous “Suppertime”, where a hyperkinetic Weiss presents Snoopy’s ode to his favorite time of day.
The comic strip feel of the show is helped immensely through the presence of animated projections created by Chris Schloemp. These along with several Schulz-inspired set pieces and the aforementioned costumes and wigs went a long way into getting the audience to “buy into” the concept of a live action comic strip.
But it all really comes down to the cast. Each has their moment while gelling very well as an ensemble. They can sing, they can move, and they can surrender to the child within themselves in bringing these characters to life. Much as how Snoopy was the break-out character from the strip, Weiss’s frenzied puppy frequently steals the show. With his understated performance, however, Bennett gets the show’s “awwww” moment when his Linus deals with Lucy’s physical bluster with verbal kindness.
I saw an absolutely terrible production of this a few years back when a theatre full of elementary school students came this close to turning into a European-soccer-match-style mob after failing to adapt to human beings playing their favorite comic strip characters – particularly Snoopy. Preparing your younger audience members for what they will see may go a long way in smoothing the path to an enjoyable evening of family theatre. The cast will do the rest.
Like paging through one of the “Peanuts” compendium books you probably have on your bookshelf, 6th Street Playhouse’s delightful You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown will make you smile – a lot.
And smiles don’t come easy these days.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown plays at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through September 17th, Thursday through Sunday at 7:30pm, Sat and Sunday matiness at 2pm.
For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com