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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Review: You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown

Ken James Stewart, Erica Peck, Kevin Yee, Amy Wallis and
Andrew Broderick as Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally and
Schroeder. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

Based on the comic strip "Peanuts" by Charles M. Schulz. Book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner.

Additional dialogue by Michael Mayer. Additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa.

Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Musical Direction by Laura Burton. Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco and Dana Osborne.

The Story: A typical day in the life of 5-year old Charlie Brown, his sister Sally, his dog Snoopy and his friends Schroeder, Lucy and Linus; it is filled with questions about the world as they figure out who they are, hide behind their insecurities and try - like the rest of us - to determine a formula for happiness.

Elephant in the room - why does Stratford consider the world of the Peanuts gang worthy of its stages? Tranquilizer: Have you even read Peanuts? Truth on a myriad of topics like depression, intolerance and faith. Discussions on music, psychiatry, and philosophy. Never getting an answer to the question, "What does it all mean?" Being who you really want to be in your own imagination. The never-ending struggle to work up the courage to talk to someone attractive. Feeling vulnerable. Feeling insecure.  Does any of this sound familiar? Just because it is all out of the mouths of babes (and their dog) makes it no less important to be staged.

All right then.  

Director and choreographer Donna Feore, with help from musical director Laura Burton, has taken a musical written in the angst-ridden 1960`s and surpassed the updated version of 1999. The songs are familiar but given a near complete makeover with jazz, gospel, and hip-hop. The choreography is likewise treated, matching dance style to music. It needed to be updated to appeal to today`s audiences, of course, but it is brilliantly done, and what was particularly brilliant was that for the most part, all the actors dance in character.

The set, designed by Michael Gianfranceso, is bold, bright and resembles a series of boxes within boxes, not unlike a comic strip, and the use of video projections provides depth, helps denote vignette changes, and even some provides some character development. (Many of the projections get big laughs, especially when Snoopy plays on his Snoopbook - the game projected was designed by local teen Dylan Woodley.) The oversized props are lacquered into plasticky, toy-like brilliance, and the costumes by Dana Osbourne pay homage to, but are not copies of, the Peanuts` original look. Charlie Brown has his yellow and zig-zags, but Sally and Lucy have bouncy petticoats, leggings and Seuss-like hair (in Sally`s case), while Linus and Schroeder have more modern looks with hightop Converse sneakers and denim skateboard shorts. In short, the production definitely appeals to anyone who still feels 25 and under.

Kevin Yee and Amy Wallis as Linus
and Sally. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Thumb-sucking, blanket-weilding Linus is brought to life by Kevin Yee, who overplays the sweetness factor to the point of cavity-inducing, but it is strangely fitting for this character, since Linus is the pseudo-intellectual who does not truly understand the academia he spews (hence the blanket to hide behind). Linus sees himself as `the sweet one` and so he must be, and therefore so must go Mr. Yee. A fantastic dancer, his moment to shine comes with "My Blanket and Me" as he dances with five more oversized copies of his beloved blanket, even leading them in a kick line.
Andrew Broderick and Erica Peck as
Schroeder and Lucy. Photo by
Cylla Von Tiedemann

Andrew Broderick plays the piano-prodigy Schroeder as the coolest kid in class. Nappy hair, shorts, socks and t-shirt the right lengths, oversized-headphones on his ears, he walks and talks street - he is the artiste of the group. No wonder Lucy wants his undivided attention. But like all cool kids, he has his insecurities too, and the arts are his security blanket (dead composers can`t talk back). Mr. Broderick leads the  whole cast (Snoopy too) in the "Beethoven Day" which starts out generically enough, but suddenly morphs into "Stomp!"-like choreography that just about brings the audience to its feet mid-act.

Kevin James Stewart as
Charlie Brown. Photo by
Cylla Von Tiedemann
Charlie Brown is played by Ken James Stewart, who captures his character`s melancholy well - the musical never calls for him to be the grouch he could be in the comic strip. Mr. Stewart brings a wistful sweetness to the role but never overplays it, and it is to his credit that we never feel so sorry for him to be heartbroken - Charlie Brown, is afterall, Everyman, and we get the feeling that for all his neuroses he will persevere, and in the end, he'll be ok.

His lil`sister Sally is played by Amy Wallis, who brings a wild fire to the role. Sally is the least inhibited of any of the characters, she says what she wants, she behaves as she wants, she blames others for her failures and is not too worried - yet - about consequences. She is, in fact, a little girl who doesn`t know enough - yet - to have responsibilities or insecurities, and that is exactly how Ms. Wallis portrays her. She is just a crackling whirlwind on stage, and she plays Sally with deadly earnestness, whether deciding on a "New Philosophy" (another near show-stopper), or "Chasing Rabbits" with Snoopy.

Lucy, older sister to Linus, is actually Erica Peck, fresh from starring in "We Will Rock You" in Toronto. A true belter, she reigns it in - until appropriate, and then look out - and has carefully honed the perennially crabby Lucy so that she is only bossy, never the bully as depicted in the strip. In fact, it is Lucy - who usually pulls the football - who gives Charlie Brown his only moments of redemption: after teasing him about his secret desire to be known as Flash, she later calls him Flash in a moment of genuine support. And it is she who utters the last line and title of the play - but Ms. Peck makes Lucy visibly struggle a bit before admitting it to herself, and realizing that Charlie Brown deserves to be told - he is indeed a good man. It is a mark she has learned something valuable about herself as a result of her crabby-poll.

Stephen Patterson as Snoopy
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Stephen Patterson plays Snoopy. I mean literally plays Snoopy, you can tell which moments he was allowed to improvise. Snoopy, like Sally, has few inhibitions. He lives in his own imagination when he is on his own, and is a dog when he is around the others. As played by Mr. Patterson, he is always a bit subversively  cool, complete with Snoopberry, electric guitar and skateboard, and he joins in each style of dancing (and makes a few up of his own).   If anyone walks away with this show it will be Mr. Patterson, simply because he continuously dials up the hilarity, until the final show-stopper "Suppertime", which starts off in slinky jazz and builds to true musical-comedy crescendo - what dog does not sing the Hallelujah chorus when its supper is placed before him?

Caveat: There is no continuous plot to this musical, it is very non-traditional in that sense. For younger audiences this serves well to hold their attention, since the action moves from joke to joke and number to number in quick succession, like comic strip panels. However really young audiences, while taking delight in individual antic moments, may be a bit confused by the thing as a whole.

Those coming from this production of You`re A Good Man, Charlie Brown may feel buoyed and think "well, that was a bit of warm and fuzzy entertainment."  But they may also wonder, a week or month from now why they cannot forget Lucy`s disconcertion or Charlie Brown`s moments of despair. It may seem like fluff for those who do not look past the surface - but that surface is a mirror and in its uncomfortable depths are all of us.

You`re a Good Man Charlie Brown continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 28th.


  1. Snoopy is played by STEPHEN Patterson. Not James.

  2. The role of SNOOPY is played by STEPHEN Patterson. Your review states it is played by James.

  3. Oy oy oy, my librarian brain must have been turned on in the background - James Patterson indeed. So sorry for the error, Mr. STEPHEN Patterson! ~RG


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