Fans of Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Sally, and Snoopy will want to head up to Thousand Oaks to join the pint-sized Peanuts icons in a celebration of the life of a boy named Charlie Brown in the crowd-pleasing musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, the second production in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s 2012-2013 season.
Newspaper comics staple Charlie Brown had already been around for seventeen years and starred in a pair of animated TV specials when You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown made its off-Broadway debut way back in 1967. West End and Broadway runs followed, along with countless regional, community, and school productions before Charlie & Friends returned to the Broadway stage in the 1999 Best Revival Tony winner, a big-stage revisal featuring a much-tweaked book (by Clark Gesner with additional dialog by Mayer and based on Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip)and a few new songs (courtesy of its Broadway director Michael Mayer and Broadway songwriter Andrew Lippa).
Gesner and Mayer’s book gives us a series of sketches that do precisely what they’re supposed to do, i.e. replicate the 4-panel daily Peanuts strips and their 10-panel Sunday counterparts in short vignettes, each with its own punch line. Take for instance when Lucy attempts to strike up a conversation with her main crush Schroeder, who only has fingers for his piano, leaving Lucy to gripe, “My Aunt Marion was right. Never try to discuss marriage with a musician.”
All the favorite Peanuts themes are there. There’s Charlie’s infatuation with the Little Red-Haired Girl, Linus’s inability to function without his blanket, Lucy’s side-job as a 5-¢-per-consultation shrink, and Snoopy’s fantasy life as The Red Baron, to name just a few, and if the unfailingly hilarious football gag isn’t part of the licensed production, Cabrillo remedies that in a very funny last-minute coda.
Many of these situations find their expression in song (music and lyrics by Genser). There’s Linus’s “My Blanket And Me,” which has him attempting in vain to “walk away and leave it, though I know you won’t believe it. I’ll just walk away and leave it on the floor.” (As if.) “The Doctor Is In” has Lucy forcing Charlie Brown to list his many failings, to which she responds with, “You don’t think that mentioning these few superficial failings is going to do you any good, do you? Why, Charlie Brown, you really have to delve.” Know-it-all Lucy later teaches Charlie some “Little Known Facts,” like: “You see that bird? It’s called an eagle. But since it’s little it has another name, a sparrow, and on Christmas and Thanksgiving we eat them.” And let’s not forget Charlie Brown’s signature song, the now classic “Happiness.”
Lippa’s contributions are some of the show’s best. The R&B “Beethoven Day” has Schroeder attempting to convince his pals to fete his all-time favorite composer with a holiday dedicated to “the man we adore on the day we place the newest face on Mount Rushmore!” Even better is Sally’s “My New Philosophy,” of which she has several, including, “Oh, yeah. That’s what you think?” and “Why are you telling me?” and “No!” and “I can’t stand it!”
Though the intimacy of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown is not well served by Thousand Oaks’ mile-high Fred Kavli theater and its bigger-than-Broadway stage, director Lewis Wilkenfeld and his stellar young cast have succeeded in bringing the iconic Peanuts gang to vivid, sparkling life.
Dane Biren is an inspired choice to play Charlie, a role he imbues with an infections combination of sweetness and depth. Natalie Storrs captures Lucy’s crabbiness to perfection, yet gives just enough hints of a soft center hidden underneath the surface to make you like Miss Van Pelt almost in spite of yourself. Jeffrey Scott Parsons’s Linus is a just right blend of intellect and vulnerability, with a terrific character voice that seems to be coming from deep inside the triple-threat’s head. Recent Ovation-winner Todrick Hall simply could not be better as Schroeder, whether ignoring a lovestruck Lucy in favor of Ludwig Von B. or leading an infectious salute to “Beethoven Day.” Reba Buhr belts out a hilarious, show-stopping “My Philosophy” but her Sally could lose some of the mean girl attitude, the better for us to enjoy little Miss Brown’s cute side. Finally, Zachary Ford deserves a great big Bow WOW! for his Snoopy, and never more so than in the pooch’s very own show-stopper, a canine salute to “Suppertime.”
The latter, and other dance sequences, benefit from Kirsten Chandler’s lively choreography. Musical director Dean Mora coaxes fabulous vocal performances from the entire cast, as well as conducting the first-rate (and live) five-piece Cabrillo Music Theatre Orchestra, contracted by Darryl Tanikawa: Mora on keyboard; Gary Rautenberg on flute, piccolo, clarinet, alto sax, and soprano sax; Richard Adkins on violin and viola; John Smith on electric bass and double string bass; and Alan Peck on set-drums and percussion.
Costumes, provided by The Theatre Company, Upland, CA, give each character a just-right Peanuts look, as do Mark Travis Hoyer’s wigs. Coby Chasman-Beck’s vivid lighting design makes Off-Broadway West, LLC’s relatively minimalist set look its best. I particularly liked the extra large sofa, which cuts adult actors down to size and Anna Grijalva’s clever props. Jonathan Burke’s sound design is once again impeccable, with extra snaps for the kids’ teachers’ “voices.” Thumbs up for Kaitlyn Pietras’s video projection design.
Understudies Tessa Grady and Bear Manescalchi may appear at certain performances.
If You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown seems too small a show for a theater as big as the Fred Kavli, it’s easy to understand the economic sense of programming a more intimate production between the much bigger-cast, bigger-budget 1776 and the upcoming Grease and Legally Blonde. Though orchestra seats, particularly those in the front half of the house, are highly recommended, even theatergoers on a budget who opt for lower-cost tickets in the mezzanine and balcony will likely leave the theater with a Charles M. Schulz-inspired smile on their faces.
Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
February 8, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger