At Olney, 'Peanuts' comes alive
By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012
The Olney Theatre Center has been frank about tightening its budget and producing popular shows as the company pulls out of a scary financial period. That explains "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which could certainly be labeled as a sappy, easy choice for a theater that has been under-recognized for its broad, often daring programming (with some sap mixed in).
However, "Peanuts" was one of the genius creations of the 20th century. And while you can't say the same for the 1967 musical based on that comic, the Olney's show appropriates enough charms from Charles M. Schulz's strips to keep six actors agreeably busy for two hours.
Picture Lucy leaning super-sweetly on Schroeder's piano at a 90-degree angle, or Charlie Brown bending backward in the face of a Lucy rant like a skinny tree in the wind; the actors do it, easily. Charlie Brown's pitching form? Looks like it does in the strips. The physical performances in director-choreographer Stephen Nachamie's production are pretty witty.
The rubber-limbed dancing from the Christmas special is fancifully mimicked, too, yet the show is hardly a string of slavish impersonations. Nachamie and the gang keep it free, and even up-to-date: When Zack Colonna's Charlie Brown fantasizes about being an athletic star, he Tebows.
Most liberated of all, of course, are Snoopy and Sally, played by James Gardiner and Jaimie Kelton. Gardiner, wearing a beagle-patterned black-and-white track suit and sporting a sideways grin, has a surprisingly good Snoopy laugh. And Kelton - who brings particular sparkle, especially in the peppy number "My New Philosophy" - unleashes a deliciously heartless cackle as Sally.
The rest of the personalities and their disorders are as you remember, if slightly juiced for the stage. Colonna is funny and forlorn as Charlie Brown. Janine Sunday is crabby and vain as Lucy. Vishal Vaidya and Paul Wyatt, as Schroeder and Linus, matter-of-factly indulge their characters' obsessions (Beethoven and thumb-and-blanket, respectively).
The good impressions mainly come during the deadpan bits pulled straight from the comics, not the songs. Clark Gesner's score, played by a five-person pit band, isn't especially strong, save for the gentle closing anthem "Happiness." (This production uses the additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, including "My New Philosophy," from the 1999 Broadway revival.) "You're a Good Man" will always only sound okay, at best.
But it looks like a neat-o giant comics page, thanks to Robert Andrew Kovach's design, which frames the stage in Schulz panels and trots out "Peanuts" icons - Snoopy's dog house, Charlie Brown's cavernous mailbox, etc. - one at a time. The show is big, bright, simple: a safe bet for an audience that increasingly salutes the Olney's mainstream musicals.
Child’s play: Family-friendly theater in unexpected places
By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012
Has a hapless character ever been as lovable as Charlie Brown with his curlicue of hair, dots for eyes and sartorially singular yellow and black zigzags? Sixty years after cartoonist Charles Schulz developed the “Peanuts” comic strip, the gang’s popularity persists.
And for New York-based director Stephen Nachamie, the character has been a gift that keeps on giving. Not only was he a huge fan of the strip growing up, but Olney is the third theater to approach him about directing the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
It will be the director’s third time working with Olney, which mounted this season’s all-ages “The Sound of Music” as well as the more mature Agatha Christie adaptation “Witness for the Prosecution.” And revisiting the colorful characters is akin to reuniting with a group of long-lost friends.
“It’s kind of like when you hear a song again, and you know where you were when you first heard it,” Nachamie says. “It’s the same thing with the Charlie Brown characters; you know where you were in your life.”
For fans, the characters immediately conjure up certain emotions — the imaginative Snoopy slipping into the persona of the Red Baron; brassy bully Lucy mercilessly taunting Charlie; the philosophical, blankie-toting Linus; and Schroeder, the Beethoven-adoring piano prodigy. They all may be portrayed as small children (with the exception of one beagle), but they speak to all ages.
“I’ve never thought of Charlie Brown as a kids show. I’ve thought of it as a generational show in that parents have one memory and one understanding of it and kids will have another,” Nachamie says. “I’ve had adults that come see the production bring their kids at first, and then all of a sudden they’re bringing their friends.”
Nachamie brings his background in sketch comedy to the musical, offering episodes that track a year in lives of the characters. Kids might enjoy the familiarity of reliving the start of the school year, while adults may identify with scenes on the little league field.
Schulz “wanted to show that, no matter how much we age by the clock, all the factors of still trying to fit in and still trying to be an optimist, plus worry and depression and hope, that all of that never changes,” Nachamie says. “That’s kind of what makes it timeless.”
The cellphone-free Peanuts crew has remained relevant even while its audience has advanced so much technologically. That’s one thing that struck Nachamie when he looked at the musical for the first time since directing it eight years ago.
“I kind of sat down and thought, ‘Wow, the world’s changed.’ But then I realized these characters are still out there, and my friends said, ‘Oh, yeah, my kid has the iPhone app.’ ”
Best for age 5 and older