Church Hill Theatre’s summer musical this year is “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” directed by Sylvia Maloney. “Charlie Brown” is, of course, based on the popular comic strip, “Peanuts,” by Charles M. Shultz, which in its heyday may have been the most widely read newspaper strip of all time. (One of its rivals for that distinction, “Li’l Abner,” was also the inspiration for a Broadway musical.)
The show was created by song writer Clark Gesner in 1966, near the height of the strip’s popularity. Gesner originally wrote a series of songs based on the “Peanuts” strip, but after Shultz gave his permission, he released a concept album with Orson Bean singing the title role. Eventually, “Charlie Brown” was developed into a full-fledged musical that appeared off-Broadway in 1967 and ran for 1,597 performances. It opened on Broadway in 1971, and had a short run, but the off-Broadway performances had already established it as a hit, A 1998 revival added new dialogue and songs, but the CHT production uses the original script.
“Charlie Brown” has been one of the most popular shows for school and community theater – I know of at least two previous productions in the local area, one at Kent County High School (also directed by Maloney) and one at Centreville High School (directed by Shelagh Grasso). The premise of the comic strip – children performing their normal activities while expressing deeper, more adult thoughts – nicely translates to the stage, with adults cast in the role of the Peanuts characters. This is part of the fun – that traditionally all the roles are played by actors “remembering” what it was like to act and think like an elementary school or pre-school child. The youngest actor here is in junior high, while the oldest ones are over 50.
Like the newspaper strip, the play is largely episodic – there is no long-range plot, and the characters remained essentially unchanged over the course of the original comic strip. It is, in effect, a series of brief gags strung together – some developed at a bit more length, and of course there are repeated themes, but if you go to the theater expecting a “story,” you won’t get one. Instead, it depicts typical activities of a child’s day.
That said, almost all the famous bits “Peanuts” readers would expect are here. Snoopy takes on the Red Baron in a World War I dogfight; Schroeder plays Beethoven on his toy piano; Lucy steals Linus’s security blanket; Charlie Brown pines for the little red-haired girl but never gets up the courage to go talk to her; and the gang manages to extend what must be the longest losing streak in baseball history. About the only iconic gag from the strip that doesn’t get portrayed onstage is Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick – and that really depended on its repetition over several years, with Charlie Brown falling for the same trick again and again. That repetition would be hard to stage as well as time-consuming, so the decision by the playwright to leave out the football scene is probably a good one. Besides, it’s such a mean trick. Audience members won’t miss it in what is overall a delightful story of childhood and a little boy with a big heart.
Despite having been originally conceived as a song cycle, “Charlie Brown” does not have a particularly memorable musical score, with the song “Happiness Is” as a possible exception which many people may recognize. Although the tunes may not be instantly recognized, the lyrics are undeniably witty – given the source, how could they be anything else? — and the CHT cast performs them with plenty of spirit. The ensemble numbers, including “Beethoven Day,” “The Book Report,” “The Baseball Game” and “The Glee Club Rehearsal” are probably the strongest. In the performance I saw, there were a few spots where the lyrics of solo songs got covered up by the orchestra – that’s too bad, because they really are the whole point of the songs, which are basically sung dialogue. The choreography was well done with the dance scenes adding significantly to the overall fun while remaining believable as the actions of little kids.
Matt Folker takes the role of Charlie Brown, and he does a great job with the character, making very effective use of facial expressions and body language. It’s a tribute to his acting that, in spite of being the tallest person on stage, he clearly projects Charlie’s vulnerability and insecurity. Another strong performance by one of Church Hill’s most reliable leading men.
Becca Van Aken plays Charlie’s nemesis, Lucy. She is superb in conveying the character’s bossy and crabby nature – an almost perfect bit of casting. And then, after the other kids responses to a survey convince her they think she really is crabby, Van Aken nicely conveys her crushed ego and sense of remorse – a surprising switch that many actors would have trouble portraying.
The role of Linus, Lucy’s younger brother, is taken by Elliott Morotti, a freshman in Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn. Despite his youth, he is already a veteran of musical theater, with appearances in several CHT performances and the Chesapeake Children’s Theater. His does a good job capturing the character’s combination of immaturity and philosophical depth.
David Ryan, who is pastor of First and Christ Methodist Churches in Chestertown, is making his CHT debut as Schroder after several roles at the Garfield. He portrays the character enthusiastically, really getting into playing Beethoven on the toy piano.
Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, is played by Maya McGrory, a CHT veteran despite her young age. She gives a charming performance as the young girl who’s still struggling with challenges from jumping rope to school assignments.
Julie Lawrence takes the role of Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s super-talented beagle, and she turns in one of the best performances in the show. It’s a great comic role, with lots of physical schtick and mugging, and Lawrence takes it all easily in stride. As a bonus, she has one of the best singing voices in the cast. I especially enjoyed her dance routine, Snoopy’s version of the old soft shoe, complete with top hat and a bone for a cane.
Another half dozen characters make up an ensemble, though they each get a few scenes where they can establish themselves. In the CHT production, Morgan Armstrong plays Frieda, Jarrett Plante plays Pig Pen, Samantha Smith is Peppermint Patty, Amy Gillilland is Violet, Faith McCarthy is Marcie and Katie Sardo is Woodstock, Snoopy’s birdie friend. They did a good job of portraying the moods and activities of young school children — skipping, agonizing over homework, licking lollipops, and playing games.
The orchestra for this performance includes Ellen Barry Grunden as pianist and conductor; Tom Anthony on bass; Ron Demby on clarinet and flute; Frank Gerber on percussion; and Jane Godfrey on violin. There were a few tuning problems early at the performance I saw, but the group came together and delivered a good performance overall.
Michael Whitehill and Brian Draper designed and built the set for the show, and it captures the spirit of childhood. Oversize items – a bench, Snoopy’s doghouse, building blocks – emphasize the fact that the characters are all supposed to be small children. So when Folker has to pull himself up on the bench, it makes it easier to forget that he’s six-foot-something instead of a typical first-grader.
The audience had a good time at the production I saw – Saturday night of opening week. A lot of them were clearly long-time “Peanuts” fans, and they empathized with poor Charlie and laughed at the antics of Snoopy and Woodstock. This is really a show that delivers a lot of laughs and sends the audience home with a warm feeling – just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to the evening news. It’s a good show for children, too.
“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” continues through June 25, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. For reservations or more information, call the theater office at 410-556-9003 or visit the theater website.
Photos by Steve Atkinson