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, here 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.
Book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner. Directed and choreographed by Stephen Nachamie. Musical director, Christopher Youstra; costumes, Seth Gilbert; lights, Andrew F. Griffin; sound design, Jeffrey Dorfman. About two hours and 10 minutes. Through March 18 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.