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Phoenix Theatre's Charlie Brown sure to please fans

REVIEW You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown Where: Phoenix Theatre When: To March 23 Rating: 2 1/2 stars At the risk of sounding all crabby like Lucy, I don’t care for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Don’t get me wrong.

REVIEW

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Where: Phoenix Theatre

When: To March 23

Rating: 2 1/2 stars

At the risk of sounding all crabby like Lucy, I don’t care for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Don’t get me wrong. The University of Victoria’s theatre department has done a superior job with this 1967 musical. The cartoon-ish set and costumes are great. Jacques Lemay’s choreography is just dandy — the dance is simple, yet sufficiently complex to engage and entertain. Fran Gebhard’s sure-handed direction is bold and brisk.

On Thursday night, a well-rehearsed student cast did well overall. And Adrian Bronson, accompanying on grand piano, was excellent.

Here’s the thing. You either buy the concept of a Charlie Brown musical (and if you do, add at least one star to this review) or you don’t. I do not, at least as far as Clark Gesner’s tepid book, music and lyrics go. Aside from its obvious commercial pull, why on earth this show gets staged over and over again all over North America is a mystery to me.

Now a perennial high school theatre favourite, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was staged successfully on Broadway and London’s West End (not to mention a recent Stratford Festival production).

The musical is, of course, based on the Charles M. Schulz comic strip Peanuts.

The most popular comic strip in history, Peanuts ran in newspapers for a half-century. With its nebbish anti-hero Charlie Brown and a cast of quirky, well-defined characters, it was more sophisticated than the competition.

Schulz’s satire was subtly subversive, especially in the 1950s and early 1960s. At its best, Peanuts radiated an almost existential funkiness — there was plenty percolating behind each simplydrawn panel.

The TV specials, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas, miraculously retained the charm and gentle wit of the cartoon. Key to their success were the superb jazz compositions of Vince Guaraldi, which have stood the test of time.

Gesner’s unmemorable music for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown embraces the classic American musical tradition, albeit with little flare. Thus we have Snoopy kicking out the jams, Broadway-style, in a pair of sunglasses. In this production, Kevin Eade’s campy interpretation casts America’s favourite mutt as a snide, unlikable wisecracker. The other misstep was Christie Stewart’s scene-chewing take on Sally. I’m sure Stewart has oodles of talent and promise, but her nails-on-a-chalkboard delivery and hammy delivery brings to mind a precocious child whose super-sized Mountain Dew was laced with amphetamines.

Occasionally, glimmers of the old comic strip’s charm surface. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is presented as short, comic-strip-like vignettes. There’s a notable moment when Charlie (quite nicely played by a po-faced Kale Penny) frets about giving Lucy a Valentine, then muffs it by handing it over and declaring: “Merry Christmas!”

Tea Siskin, playing Lucy, emerges as the show’s standout. Her performance was theatrical without being over the top; she somehow manages to create a strong, warm character who’s simultaneously irritating and endearing.

I suspect the litmus test of whether you might enjoy You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is the song Happiness Is. The lyrics go something like “Happiness is … finding a pencil, pizza with sausage, five different crayons, etc.” If you find this charming and compelling, the show is likely for you. The opening-night audience did seem to enjoy it. On the way out, a woman in front of me said to her companion, “That was cute.”

At the very least, this is fine entertainment for children. I recommend it for those 11 years old and younger.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com