REVIEW: A Charlie Brown Christmas - Chance Theater
Updated: Jun 20
"...As Fresh as Snowfall!"
If you are looking for a way to bring a little more magic into the Christmas season, look no further than Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which runs through December 30th on the Fyda-Mar Stage at Chance Theater in Anaheim. Directed by James McHale, a Chance resident artist, this live-action version is a nostalgic look back at Charles M. Shulz’s “Peanuts characters,” one of the most beloved and iconic group of youngsters on the planet, with their well-known TV animated Christmas adventure, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The Peanuts comic strip, which normally came out in the Sunday papers, had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s, and at one point it was published in over 2600 newspapers, in 75 countries and translated in 21 languages. It’s safe to say that Charlie Brown and his gang touched a great many of us as we grew up. Most of us has experienced some Snoopy bravado, or felt a little insecurity like Linus. Many of us have even been left lovelorn like Lucy. And we’ve definitely wallowed in the angst and peer pressure of Charlie Brown.
The 1965 TV special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company, and was written and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the characters, the producers went an unconventional route, hiring only child actors to voice the characters. The program's soundtrack was similarly unorthodox - it featured a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi. But its absence of a laugh track, in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation, led the network to predict the project would be a total disaster preceding its broadcast.
Contrary to that apprehension, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was watched by over 45% of the country, placing it at number two in the ratings, just behind Bonanza on NBC, and receiving phenomenal reviews from critics. It has since been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award, which paved the way for a whole series of Peanuts TV Specials and Films that followed, as well as a stage production in 2013, fully authorized by the Schulz family. As one of the first and still relatively few holiday perennials created by television, it remains, after nearly 50 years, as fresh as snowfall.
Developed for the stage in gorgeous melancholy by Eric Schaeffer, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is scripted faithfully from the original TV special (then produced by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez), but includes an optional sing-along section of Christmas songs at the end.
This delightful holiday musical stars eleven members of the gang, including Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Sally and Schroeder as they produce their own Christmas play and search for the true meaning of Christmas. One of the most charming and definitely amusing attributes of this production is the conformity to the animated characters in movement, action and speech. Actors perform in cartoon-like gesticulation and body language; dialogue is as if you’re reading a caption bubble over the character in the comic strip, so uniquely expressed by the actors, in fact, you simply cannot take your eyes off them.
Orchestration for the musical, which includes all of Vince Guaraldi's music from the television special, was originally made up of a jazz trio consisting of one piano, one bass, and one percussion (snare drum, bass drum, tom toms, floor tom, hi-hat, cymbals, or handbells). The score includes "Linus and Lucy," otherwise known as the Peanuts theme. Guaraldi also wrote the music for the popular, "Christmas Time Is Here." The song's lyrics were penned on the back of an envelope by Mendelson in just 15 minutes. Amazingly, in the years since it was first heard, the song has now become a beloved Christmas standard.
The plot of the musical is both simplistic and thought-provoking. Charlie Brown is frustrated by the commercialization of the holiday. His dog Snoopy wants to win a holiday decorating contest, his sister Sally is anxious about receiving her "fair share" of presents – “all that’s coming to her,” and his friend Lucy yearns for the gift of real estate. One of Lucy's cynical takes is that Christmas is "a big commercial racket all run by an Eastern syndicate." Nevertheless, she recommends that Charlie Brown direct a Christmas play to build his confidence and organizational skills. His first job is to go out and find a tree for the play.
Attempting to get in touch with the real spirit of Christmas, Charlie Brown picks out a small, struggling fir tree instead of a shiny aluminum one, but he and his scraggly, droopy tree are only ridiculed. But the sad little tree he buys for the school play has deeper meaning - it stands for all the world's underfed, unseen and unloved, yet, not beyond hope.
As Charlie Brown ponders the true meaning of Christmas, Linus comes to the rescue by reading the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. With security blanket securely wrapped around his shoulders, he recites it in a straightforward narrative manner, and the kids finally get the message of "peace on Earth, good will to men." They return to the ruined little tree and add decorations "to show a little love."
Subtle, with deliberate slow action — the show is satisfyingly appealing to children and adults alike, spoken as if in the voices of children and garlanded with a pensive-ecstatic jazz piano score. And here and there it even flies into passages of unmitigated joy, as comic characters seemingly freed from the page exult in the power of dance.
The costumes, supervised by Costume Designer Christina M. Perez, are bright, simple and recognizable. The Set is handled by Production Designers Masako Tobaru and Megan Hill, with expert carpentry by Teodora Ramos-Fantone. Both Snoopy’s dog house and Lucy’s Psychiatrist booth has an authentic look, and most of the stage scenery, including terraced snow banks, town housing, and… trees, are removable and even instrumental in a clever scene with Charlie Brown and the cast as he moves through the woods looking for a tree. Stage Management is skillfully directed by Kelsey Somerville.
Physical comedy (that of Dimithri Perera playing Snoopy) and sarcasm (Lucy’s tone captured perfectly by Laura M. Hathaway) abound as Charlie Brown (Matt Takahashi) works through his December depression surrounding Christmas commercialism. Deep-thinking Linus, gentle and emotive, is played wonderfully by Juston Gonzalez.
Sally, as cute as a picture in her bright yellow wig, is perkily played by Angela Griswold. Schroeder, looking remarkably like the original character, is Austin Brooks Rae. Pig Pen, who definitely needs a sound cleaning, is colorfully played by Nathan Shube. Frieda is Jennifer Noce, Violet is Adriana Rodriguez Burciaga, Patty is portrayed by Hannah Schill and Shermy is Seth Weiner.
Director McHale's “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” is a resounding success, perfect for a family outing, and one of the best times you will have this holiday season! The show is in one act and under an hour in performance. Highly Recommended! Unfortunately, many of the performances are already sold out due to the vast popularity of the show. It is strongly recommended to hasten to either online ticket ordering at https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?show=79590 or call the Chance Theater box office at (888) 455-4212, between 11am-3pm on Monday-Friday for ticket availability.