REVIEW: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown" — South Coast Repertory at Mission San Juan Capistrano
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Charlie Brown: “Well, I guess I'd better see what I've got — Peanut Butter! Some psychiatrists say that people who eat peanut butter sandwiches are lonely...I guess they're right!”
When the play, “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” was first staged on March 7, 1967, at Theatre 80 in New York City, no child back then needed an explanation of the “Peanuts” characters; they were household names in a pint-size world.
More than fifty years later, the names are still familiar, thanks in part to the Knott’s theme park, annual TV specials and reruns through CBS, Disney, as well as the popularity of this musical and other spinoff musicals.
Clark Gesner, who created the music and lyrics for the musical comedy, notes in the foreword to the Random House edition of the script that its success can be largely attributed to Charles M. Schulz's "immensely human view of the world and his special ability to say it for all of us." The show, of course, features the “Peanuts” gang singing and philosophizing through vignettes from little-kid existence: a nail-biting baseball game, a daunting book report, or simply anxiety over losing a favorite blanket. The visual quirkiness is carried through in the actors' oddball characterizations where the characters are both naïvely young and preternaturally adult.
As a result, the petty but persistent worries that nag at these characters — Charlie Brown's failure ever to fly a kite or receive a Valentine, Lucy's rage at not being able to be a queen ("It's probably just a matter of knowing the right people"), or Schroeder's attempts to bring order into a chaotic world with his beloved Beethoven, remind us that our own grown-up hang-ups are perhaps, just as infantile.
In 1999, a notable Broadway revival premiered, which featured a revised book, as well as additional songs and orchestrations by composer Andrew Lippa — and South Coast Repertory, Orange County’s Tony Award-Winning theatre, now presents this updated version to audiences at the beautiful and historic Mission San Juan Capistrano as part of their Outside SCR Summer Nights of Outdoor Theatre. The show is being performed from July 16th through August 1st.
The heart of the show, as it should be, is Matthew Henerson’s (“She Loves Me”) at once hilarious and nerve-jangling Charlie Brown. Knowing that it’s very difficult to capture the deadpan drollery of the cartoon original, Mr. Henerson lays Charlie's desperation right out for everyone to see, with a manic edge that not only wins our pity, but also makes us want to shake this eternally self-defeating, all too recognizable everyman and say Stop it!
Picture Lucy (Kelley Dorney—“The Andrews Brothers”), fragile egomaniac that she is, leaning sugary-sweetly on Schroeder’s piano at a 90-degree angle, or Charlie Brown bending backward in the face of a Lucy rant like a skinny tree in the wind; the actors do it, easily.
The physical performances in Director/Choreographer Kari Hayter’s production are remarkably witty, in fact, right down to the fanciful, rubber-limbed dancing. Charlie Brown’s pitching form? Looks right out of the comic strips.
Brian Kim (“Interstate: The Musical”) as a cool, laid-back Schroeder in a black beanie and Ricky Abilez (“She Loves Me”) as a wise, loyal Linus, matter-of-factly indulge their characters’ obsessions (Beethoven and thumb-and-blanket, respectively).
Most liberated of all of course is Snoopy, played by Derek Manson (“James and the Giant Peach”), wearing black-spotted knee socks, leather flying helmet and scarf. And Sally, played by Grace Yoo (“Into the Woods”), who brings sparkle to the peppy number “My New Philosophy,” and unleashes a delicious heartless cackle as the little sister. In this case, however, Sally’s iconic cluster of blonde curls are replaced by a natural, dark brunette coif.
As the play progresses, the characters’ relationships to one another are further expanded. To anyone who has followed "Peanuts," the comic strip, these relationships will not provide any surprises. Ms. Yoo’s Sally is complemented by Ms. Dorney’s brassy, common, intrusive Lucy, who eerily channels Leona Helmsley as she brazenly conducts her own popularity poll when Linus advises her to "know thyself." Mr. Manson is an athletic, almost dashing Snoopy, bounding about as he daydreams of being a World War I flying ace, while other times celebrating suppertime in a rather gross burlesque-show routine.
Mr. Kim is enjoyable as Schroeder, the tortured poet with the romantic imagination and a Byronic allure for lusty Lucy’s very long "aughh" as he attempts to escape his would-be groupie. And Mr. Abilez’ Linus, the calm, super-rational, Socrates-quoting intellectual who's a basket case without his blanket, shows us his terrors right on the mark. And, of course, there’s Charlie Brown's hopeless love-at-a-distance of the mysterious little redheaded girl.
Much of the show’s effectiveness is due to its rough-edged simplicity. The set resembles a giant page out of the Sunday comics, thanks to Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s design, which frames the stage in Schulz panels and trots out “Peanuts” icons — Snoopy’s dog house, Lucy’s psychiatric booth, etc. — one at a time. In fact, I haven't been so taken with a Charlie Brown production before as I have with this this raffish, energetic, very funny production. South Coast Repertory’s Charlie Brown has all the wry, edgy, anxious humor, slightly juiced for the stage, that made Schulz's early strips so lastingly funny.
The production crew also includes Kish Finnegan as Costume Designer, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz as Lighting Designer, Paul James Prendergast as Sound Designer, Deborah Wicks La Puma as Music Director, Joanne DeNaut, CSa, as Casting Director, and Kathryn Davies as Stage Manager.
Sophie & Larry Cripe (longtime members of the Platinum Circle and six-time Honorary Producers of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, as well as major donors to the theatre’s Legacy Campaign for SCR’s endowment), and John (co-founder of Waterford Property Company) & Laura Drachman are serving as Honorary Producers; additionally, Jean & Tim Weiss (23rd time serving as Honorary Producers; nine years on the Board of Trustees, including two terms as President) are Honorary Producers.
Based on the comic strip “Peanuts” by Charles M. Schulz; book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner; additional dialogue by Michael Mayer; additional music & lyrics by Andrew Lippa, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” now playing through August 1st is a collaborative partner outdoor event produced by South Coast Repertory and presented by the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The show is approximately one hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets and further information on venue seating, Covid-19 requirements and parking, please see https://www.scr.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jenny Graham.