Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: (Stratford) You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown

Stephen Patterson (photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Happiness is Stratford’s Charlie Brown
Two Boys, Five Days, Five Plays ends on a high note
by Stuart Munro
As I sat in my seat waiting for the curtain to go up on Wednesday night’s opening of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, I was a little worried. In her director’s notes, Donna Feore talks about using contemporary movement in order to make sure the kids of today will see characters they recognize on stage, and while I agree with the goal, I wasn’t sure I agreed with the planned execution. Could Schultz’s classic, timeless characters work as 21st century youths? Had the 1999 makeover of the show done enough to make Charlie Brown and his companions modern?
In the title role, Ken James Stewart as Charlie Brown is delightful, charming, sad, joyful and everything in between.

It becomes clear very quickly that Ms. Feore knows exactly what she’s doing, and we should all be very thankful for it. What could easily be a sleepy little show about nothing instead becomes a charming and lively playground where all of our inner turmoil and neuroses, fears and joys are distilled and put on display. This is a modern take on Peanuts, but these characters are still the philosophers and thinkers we’ve come to expect.
In the title role, Ken James Stewart as Charlie Brown is delightful, charming, sad, joyful and everything in between. He manages to break your heart in the very first moment (as his friends and family pick apart his various faults) and yet, by the evening’s end, you somehow believe that everything’s going to work out just fine for him. A more than capable dancer, and with a lovely voice, Mr. Stewart is a brilliant addition to the festival company.
In fact, almost all the cast members are making their Stratford debuts this year, each one proving that they deserve to be here, and maybe should’ve been here years ago. Clark Gesner’s score, including Andrew Lippa’s revisions, to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is deceptively simple and this ensemble sang it near perfectly.
Erica Peck as Lucy was every bit the crabby yet charming antagonist to Charlie Brown one could hope for. Despite her seemingly mean outward demeanor, she wins you over to her side when she realizes just how crabby she is, and her powerful voice is full of nuance and variety. I’m most familiar with Ms. Peck from the Toronto production of We Will Rock You, and I confess I figured she was a bit of a one trick pony, all rock star all the time. I’m very pleased to have been completely wrong about her.
Kevin Yee as Linus is thoughtful and exuberant, and a production number involving his trademark security blanket is one of the show’s many highlights. Amy Wallis as Sally Brown is youthful and spritely. Her rendition of “My New Philosophy,” made famous by Kristen Chenoweth at the 1999 Tony Awards, was every bit as exciting as that telecast all those years ago. 
The real crowd pleaser, however, is Stephen Patterson as Snoopy.

Perhaps the only weak link in the cast is Andrew Broderick as Schroeder. Fellow CharPo contributor, Dave Ross, had a hard time understanding his words (something I didn’t notice until he mentioned it to me. I know the music inside and out . . .), and while this may have partly been a sound balance issue, I think some of the responsibility belongs to Mr. Broderick who just doesn’t seem to possess the vocal strength of his castmates. His hip hop inspired take on the Beethoven-loving character doesn’t always work, though this is a direction issue as much as anything. Much of what he does is successful, but it’s inconsistent.
The real crowd pleaser, however, is Stephen Patterson as Snoopy. Patterson leaps around the stage effortlessly and never seems to tire. His Snoopy is highly anthropomorphized and he spends very little time on all fours trying to imitate a dog, for which we should all be very grateful. The various “Bye Bye Kitty” interludes are an absolute riot, and the Act II showstopper, “Suppertime,” is probably worth the price of admission by itself.
Michael Gianfrancesco’s set design creates a simple, colourful playspace for the kids who are generally just on the bright stage without the aid of other set pieces. When sets do come on, they are obviously cartoon inspired, and if they lack a clear Schultz inspiration, they don’t ever distract or take away from the performances. Sean Nieuwenhuis’s video design is a little less successful. The back of the stage is a giant video screen that often animates what’s being described in the particular scene. The videos are often too literal and look more like clip art than anything. If these animations had taken their inspiration from Schultz’s drawings, or even the look of the rest of the show’s design, I’d’ve bought it. As it is, it’s best just to tune them out.
Director and choreographer, Donna Feore, has done an excellent job keeping the pacing up. A show about nothing could get old very fast, but Ms. Feore never lets the audience get bored. Her more contemporary choreography is not so new as to be unrecognizable to adult audiences, and I had no trouble believing that these were small children living in 2012. Aiding this is Dana Osborne’s costume design which is inspired by the original Schultz designs with just enough of a modern twist.
Video projections aside, this is a near perfect production of one of my favourite little musicals. While the plot-free nature of the show might annoy some, I recommend throwing away your expectations of what a musical “should” be, and enjoying what a fun, and often thought-provoking evening You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown can be.

- Read also David Gianfrancesco's first-person article on the creation of the Charlie Brown set
- Read also Joel Fishbane's appreciation of Charlie Brown's text and music

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