Youíre a Good Man, Charlie Brown, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, additional material by Michael Mayer and Andrew Lippa. Directed by Judy Staber.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Schane-Lydon's Snoopy as the WWI Flying Ace; photo: Daniel Region
"Thoroughly, totally, utterly. . ."
Entertainment was the most important thing the musical theater could give us when I was a kid, when I was the age Charlie Brown and his friends are in the musical currently playing at the Ghent Playhouse. Then relevance entered the picture. Relevance, importance, social content became the reason to see a musical, to watch gangs fighting or Wall Street crumbling or a marriage break apart due to mental illness and depression.
Somewhere in the middle of all that transition Clark Gesner transformed the socially relevant commentary of Charles Schulzís daily cartoon "Peanuts" into non-stop, joyous entertainment. He took the idea of relevance and chopped it down the middle, stuck the two ends together and produced a new word, relance, a word so silly, all you can do is laugh at it and move on. Thatís just what this show does: it skewers all the social relevance and leaves us laughing at the experience of being five and a half years old and smarter than your parents.
Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt, their younger siblings Sally and Linus, classical pianist Schroeder and, of course, the wisest of them all, Snoopy the Beagle are cavorting on the well designed set, created by Bill Visscher, for only three weeks, so if you want to laugh at the life weíve all led one way or another, the time is now. Donít wait too long.
Directed by Judy Staber in her debut in that role in Ghent (a role that is crying out to be repeated and often), "Youíre a Good Man, Charlie Brown" is a genuine delight featuring a very special company of players. Each one of them is perfect in their assigned roles, perfect in style, look, voice and temperament. Staber has had the greatest of casting luck here. She has used her company well and the pictures each make, alone or in combination, so seriously combat the cartoon images we all know so well that they serve to revive memories and ask for the proper response - applause, laughter, and more applause.
Erin M. White makes Sally Brown into an impetuous, glistening idiot-child who discovers new philosophies with a rapidity that makes the chirping of orioles seem like sluggish commentary. She embodies the enigmatic soul of a girl child and lets us see the softer side of a cynic. Her big brother, Charlie, is played with humor, grace, charm and with an extremely expressive face by Matthew W. Coviello. He makes up for some vocal limitations with an actorís technique that makes you forget all about the actor, about any limitations, and see only the character. His Charlie is never pathetic, only sympathetic, and his reveries about the red-haired girl are among the most delicately humorous I have ever seen.
As his nemesis, Lucy, the company here is lucky to have Christina Smith who can make a snarl or an upturned upper lip into the funniest of physicalities on this stage. As her fellow performers have managed to ignore their own maturation, so she does likewise taking on the mannerisms of a six-year old bolstered by the attitudes of a thirty-five year old single woman on a desperate, last-ditch search for a mate. Smith is a whiz, on-and-off stage in a split second, and yet when she opens her Psychiatry stand and listens, she is an almost wistful Barnum & Bailey clown. Itís a truly remarkable performance.
Michael Meier is the tallest imaginable Schroeder and one of the finest Iíve seen. His stints at the ground-hugging grand piano are hilarious and his ambivalent friendship with Lucy is given ample time to play out. He handles this growing motive with a natural elan and a silly look. The biggest kid on this block, he is one of the most genuine. This leaves Linus - a special rendition of the blanket-dependent lad by Zach Fenoff, a newcomer to this company. His performance has a reality to it that almost takes it out of the entertainment slot and into a living reality-TV sensibility. He is a genuine talent, singing, dancing, maintaining character in everything he does. Linus has the least time in which to struggle for audience attention, but Fenoff on stage demands that attention and he gets it. I hope we see much more of him in the future on this and other regional stages.
Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon takes on his third major role of the season at this playhouse, Snoopy, the Beagle. A far cry from his grandiose Little Red Riding Hood and a major improvement over his El Gallo in Fantasticks, in this role he is really in his element. It was clear from his first little bark that Snoopy would be the role of the season for him and by the time the second act opened with his solo turn as the World War I Flying Ace it was obvious that the audience would want, and expect, more and more of him as time went on. He has certainly earned his stripes on this stage in the various guises he has put on, but his Snoopy will be the hard one to beat in the future.
Joanne Maurer had an easy job of it with these costumes. The prototypes in the daily cartoon were an obvious model and the choices of colors were a natural for each one. Staber, as the P-P woman (props and publicity) added much to the workings of the show and Dave Malsan was generally right with lighting choices, even if a few transitions on opening night seemed awkward and as though a cue had been skipped. The sound effects people - and they know who they are - provided great atmosphere.
Ultimately it is the vision of the director that really shines out here. Staber has brought a good show to a better place and left us all happy that she was the conductor on this journey. With the excellent aid of Music Director Cathy Schane-Lydon and her fine pick-up orchestra, choreographer Zachary Pearson and assistant director Cathy Lee-Visscher Staber has emerged into a new light, a new career step. We could easily change the title of this show to "Youíre a Good Man, Judy Staber."
With only two weekends to follow, this should be a sell-out show, one that the company might consider extending for at least one more week so a beleaguered critic might have a second shot at seeing it again. What do you say, folks? Do I have a shot?
Youíre a Good Man, Charlie Brown plays at the Ghent Playhouse on Route 66, just west of Ghent, NY through Sunday June 5. For information or to order tickets, call the box office at 518-392-6264.