REVIEW: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" by Charles M. Schulz – Chance Theater, Anaheim
"Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”
It’s 1963, and Lee Mendelson has just spent the last two years trying to sell a documentary about cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and his "Peanuts" strip to a TV network.
Driving home from Schulz's house one evening, Mendelson heard Vince Guaraldi's Grammy-winning "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on his car radio. He called Guaraldi and asked him to do music for the Schulz documentary. A few weeks later, Guaraldi called back and insisted he listen over the phone to a song he just wrote for the film. Guaraldi called it "Linus and Lucy." It would be another two years before America heard it on “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” where it has become a jazz classic.
The 2013 homonymous stage adaptation by Eric Schaeffer of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” based on the mid-‘60s television holiday special by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson (also responsible for TV’s “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”), stars nine of Charles M. Schulz’s most beloved Peanuts’ characters.
Playing through December 29th, the show is a returning engagement at Chance Theater, Anaheim, and directed by Chance resident artist/playwright James McHale, where he also directed “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues.”
With Season Producers Bette & Wylie Aitken, Honorary Producers Damien & Yvonne Jordan and Lisa Keating, Associate Season Producer Laurie Smits Staude, Production Design by Masako Tobaru and Megan Hill, Costume Design by Christina M. Perez, Wigs by Marissa Sellers, and Stage Management by Kelsey Somerville, the plot is poetically simple: eternal existentialist Charlie Brown (played with adorable neuroticism by Matt Takahashi, “Ragtime”) is puzzled by the true meaning of the holiday.
Is Christmas about the presents, shopping, and rampant commercialism? Or is there more than meets the eye? Charlie’s depression isn’t helped by the fact that his friends all seem to be more interested in material possessions than spiritual fulfillment. Even his occasionally loyal dog, Snoopy (a perfectly droll Dimithri Perera, “The Stinky Cheese Man”), enters a Christmas decoration contest in hopes of earning a cash prize.
It seems only yesterday that Schulz’s comic strip was transformed into an ABC TV special, but it was actually a mind-boggling 54 years ago: Dec. 9, 1965. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has since become the second-longest running televised Christmas special, just behind “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But it’s something of a miracle that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” exists at all.
Commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company at the height of the Peanuts craze in the mid-1960s, the special had all the hallmarks of a disaster. It was produced on an extremely tight budget with an even tighter timeframe—the basic story outline was quite literally written in a day.
They were certain they had a bomb on their hands — so unhappy was the network that Mendelson believed the program would have been cancelled had it not been scheduled for air so shortly following screening. The producers’ concern intensified when they heard that jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi composed the score, breaking with the tradition of using centuries-old carols. Yet all of the network’s complaints are the things that set "A Charlie Brown Christmas" apart.
Guaraldi’s music is a rightful classic, selling millions of copies and fully embodying the oddly bittersweet, melancholy happiness of the Christmas season for generations. The recording is now even included in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the base track for this stage presentation. It’s also considered by the Library of Congress to be one of the most culturally and aesthetically important sound recordings of all time.
The unrushed pacing sets the perfect mood for the story’s examination of the holiday from a childhood perspective, when every moment seems to last an eternity as it rushes by. And the child actors and crude animation capture a sort of youthful innocence, making “A Charlie Brown Christmas” feel less like a corporate-sponsored spinoff and more like a homemade, hand-drawn family artifact, the sort of popsicle-stick-and-glitter contraption that thousands of families have hung on their Christmas trees over the years.
There are almost too many things about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to love. Guaraldi’s classic score, the music of a simple piano-based jazz trio instantly summoning feelings of Christmas. The examination of the season's existential melancholy, with its forced good will and commercialized cheer. Snoopy’s pranks and Linus’ (Juston Gonzalez-Rodholm, “Noises Off”) security blanket and Pig-Pen’s (Nathan Shube, “Little Shop of Horrors”) placid good humor, unfazed by the cloud of dust he manages to conjure even in a snowstorm.
You may remember the Peanuts gang dancing in the auditorium to Schroeder’s (Christopher Diem, “James and the Giant Peach”) music, first to “Christmas is Coming,” then to “Linus and Lucy”— the latter of which, especially, is pure unadulterated childhood joy reduced to aural form. I think of Frieda (Jennifer Noce, “Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium”) swinging her arms to and fro, and Violet (Hannah Schill, “Twelfth Night”) punching the air, and the twin girls in their purply-pinkish dresses bobbing their heads side to side, and the boy in the yellowish shirt doing his funny back-and-forth shoulder-hunching boogie.
Each dance is so distinctive and so odd and so unfettered — the dances of children whose hearts have not yet been crushed by the soul-deadening ennui of day-to-day life and the self-consciousness that comes with it. They hear a happy tune, and it wells up within them in unfiltered happiness, and their body moves instinctively in expressive thanks.
Of course, their lives are not all uncynical happiness. On the contrary, Charlie Brown’s friends are often a mean and selfish lot. Lucy (Laura M. Hathaway, “Big Fish”) is euphoric at the sound of nickels clinking in her can and is dissatisfied with the bicycles and toys she receives, feeling herself worthy of something more permanent — like real estate. (For this production, Karen O’Hanlon is the Lucy Understudy.) Young Sally (Shai Culver, “Steel Magnolias”), still not fully articulate, is mature enough to want Santa to bring her $10s and $20s, lest he screw up her carefully curated Christmas list.
Everywhere Charlie Brown looks, he sees crass consumerism and a not-so-generous spirit. It depresses him to no end (a short trip for our intrepid little hero). Surely the true meaning of Christmas isn’t found in avarice and self-aggrandizement, is it? Surely the spirit of the season must be something more?
But the brilliance of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is that, even while it exposes the nastiness and distraction that can seep into the holiday, it also shows its underlying innocence. Not just in Linus’ climactic reading from the Gospel of Luke, but also in smaller moments, like that dancing, or the children skating on a frozen pond and forming an impromptu conga line (led, naturally, by everybody’s favorite beagle), or the kids catching snowflakes on their tongues (set to Guaraldi’s “Skating,” which sounds uncannily like a gentle falling snow).
Despite its profound themes and important truths, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is quiet and unforced and simple, capturing life and childhood in all its varied ups and downs. Its message hits all the harder when we realize the subtle meaning behind it: the good and the bad do coexist, but let’s all try to do the best we can, shall we?
At the center of it all stands Charlie Brown, so unhappy, so unsure of his own competence. Why, he wonders, must we have a holiday season to emphasize how little he is loved? As he is mercilessly berated by the other children (led by dominating Lucy), he sinks deeper into despair. It is a familiar feeling for many at the holidays, and there are few of us who have not identified with Charlie Brown at some point. No matter how cheery the exterior, sorrow has a way of creeping in and metastasizing, reinforced by empty mailboxes and snickering finger-pointers.
But even though he claims not to understand the Christmas spirit, Charlie Brown seems to have a pretty good grasp on it. He identifies the only real Christmas tree on the lot of gaudy aluminum horrors (so popular was "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that the nearly decade-old aluminum-tree craze that preceded it was all but gone within two years after its initial airing). He sees through its motley exterior and realizes that it needs a home. Linus comes to agree, realizing that it never was such a bad little tree — it just needs a little love, like all the other prematurely balding little trees of the world.
As Linus says, “Christmas comes to bring us tidings of great joy, which shall be unto all people.” Amid a cold, sometimes cruel world, it is a truth of tremendous warmth, comfort and joy.
It’s almost enough to even make you want to dance.
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio