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THEATER REVIEW

‘Charlie Brown,’ A Treat for Audiences of All Ages

Creatively Arranged Compilation of Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ Comic Strip Rekindles a Long-Lost Love for Charlie

By Lance Nathan

Staff Writer

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

MIT Musical Theatre Guild

Directed by Dan Katz ’03

Produced by Katie Jeffreys ’01

Starring Todd Radford G, Tommy Fisher ’02, Phillip Burrowes ’04, Caitlin Marlow ’03, Katherine Klesch ’04, Jamez Kirtley ’94

For many of us, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was an integral part of childhood. Most of us can probably name nine characters from the strip far more quickly than we could name the nine Supreme Court justices. (Go ahead, try it.) But anyone who thinks that they’ve outgrown the comic strip and thinks that it was “just for kids” should see the Musical Theatre Guild’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

The musical tells the story of a day in the life of Charlie Brown (Todd Radford G) through a combination of monologues, short scenes, and musical numbers. Along with four friends -- Linus (Tommy Fisher ’02), Schroeder (Phillip Burrowes ’04), Lucy (Caitlin Marlow ’03) and Patty (Katherine Klesch ’04) -- and of course his more or less faithful beagle Snoopy (Jamez Kirtley ’94), Charlie Brown struggles through another day full of book reports, baseball games, kite flying, and a little philosophy. And in fact, as far as the plot goes, that’s about all there is.

For this reason, the play poses a serious challenge for a cast and director: pulling clear characterizations out of the script is not as easy as with a straightforward, linear plot. In fact, though some scenes are longer than others, much of the play comes directly from the original three-panel strips, giving the actors nothing but a few lines of dialogue and a punchline to work from. Moreover, Peanuts is in some ways the hardest source imaginable to adapt. As opposed to a book that a handful of audience members have read, almost everyone knows the characters as old friends, and will not readily accept any deviation from the familiar personalities.

It is in this respect that this production shines brightest. Without turning the actors into mere imitations of the strips, director Dan Katz ’03 has drawn out six performances from his actors which are familiar and comforting, recognizable as the characters we grew up with, and yet very real and new. Any physical differences between the actors and their Schulz-drawn counterparts is easy to forget (perhaps the hardest of these being Lucy, whose straight light-brown hair and plain blue dress make her look more like Lewis Carroll’s Alice).

Best of all, the children feel like children -- precocious, outspoken children, admittedly, but children nonetheless. Fine technical work aids in this: a minimal set of oversized blocks that are exactly what the staging needs, costumes and too-large pencils coordinated in simple colors, and lighting that echoes those colors against the backdrop.

All of the children give fine performances, particularly Marlow, whose Lucy switches perfectly between sweetness and “crabbiness.” As Snoopy, Kirtley is in a class of his own, mugging for the audience, dancing with his supper dish, and delivering lines like “Yesterday, I was a dog. Today, I am a dog. Tomorrow, I will probably still be a dog” with a plaintive frankness ideal for the role.

What drives the show, however, is Charlie Brown -- easy to think of as the quintessential loser, yet never giving up. Radford’s portrayal, full of animated expressions and eloquent posture, alternately despairing and hopeful, saves the script from being merely cute and nostalgic. The director’s notes pose the question of why Charlie Brown keeps going when nothing ever goes right, and encourages the audience to draw their own conclusions; watching Radford’s face light up when something begins to go right is, to my mind, that answer.

The production is not without its flaws. Most serious is the pacing, which is hard to maintain in a show where most scenes last under a minute. At times, the pauses between vignettes drag a little too long while the actors and lighting catch up. These pauses could be covered by the orchestra, but the orchestra itself seemed somewhat off, most noticeably during the finale, “Happiness.”

Additionally, while the staging is fine and Katz makes good use of the central blocks as an all-purpose perch without confining the action to them, the choreography is not up to the same standards. Many of the choreographed numbers have the actors dancing from side to side, and even this presents an occasional challenge to the actors as they look uncomfortable and dodge the scenery.

Nevertheless, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown provides us with an entertaining evening full of familiar characters. It’s perfect for children, certainly, but it’s no less ideal for college students, with its comforting reminder of childhood (and a song about writing book reports that will ring familiar to anyone writing college essays). Take this chance to remind yourself how truly funny the late Charles Schulz was.