BWW Album Review: Happiness Is...YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN
Whether or not you are familiar with Clark Gesner's musical YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, you are bound to recognize Track 21 of the York Theatre Company 2016 Off-Broadway Cast Recording. The theme "Linus and Lucy," written by Vince Guaraldi, is a familiar tune to all who have seen the well-known animated specials featuring the Peanuts kids. There is something oddly soothing about this gentle, understated theme, with its rolling feeling of continuity paired with plinking notes of whimsy, that has become so closely associated with Charles M. Schulz's legacy of 17,897 comic strips. The YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN band played "Linus and Lucy" as walking-out music after the show, prompting much of the audience to stay and hear it through to the end.
You could say that Gesner's challenge in writing YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN--a musical that earned Schulz's blessing--was to create music as indelibly linked to the Peanuts gang as Guaraldi's. (His 1967 score for this show was written only a few years after Guaraldi's music.) Of course, he faced the greater challenge of writing songs for each of the characters in the show: eternal pessimist and self-described loser Charlie Brown and his spunky, self-absorbed little sister Sally, blanket-toting philosopher Linus and his bossy big sister Lucy, reticent pianist Schroeder (Lucy's elusive love object)...and, of course, Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy, a canine with a more active fantasy life than most people. There are many more characters in the comic strips (some might miss Peppermint Patty and Marcy), but these are enough to make up the core of Charlie Brown's world.
Taking a cue from Schulz, Gesner has his precociously emotional bunch of ageless kids swing back and forth from depression, frustration, and meanness, to hope, love, and outright joy. The show ends on a note of uplift, "Happiness," in which the children remind themselves of the things that make them happy; it's hard to argue with the conclusion, especially when we see that these affirmations are hard-won; Linus loves "having a sister," even when the sister is as difficult as Lucy. The poignancy of the song comes from our sensing how many emotions, difficulties, and new consolations lie ahead for these children (or would if they were the kind who got older).
"Happiness" and the title song, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," are probably the best known in the score. The latter, performed brightly by this cast, presents a somewhat misleading boost for Charlie Brown from the friends who don't usually appreciate him. Throughout the show, he suffers from insecurity and self-doubt, yearning for the attention of the unseen "Little Red-Headed Girl." His friends tend to affirm his low self-esteem, as when Lucy offers him a brutal psychological assessment in "The Doctor Is In." Some of the children sing about the things they love most--Linus about his blanket, Schroeder about Beethoven.
There are also a few complex group songs that demand a lot of the cast, and they rise to the occasion. In "The Book Report," the children struggle to write about "Peter Rabbit" in ways that reflect each one's personality. Each of the four children has a complicated part to speak and/or sing, even before all parts are sung simultaneously. In "T-E-A-M (The Baseball Game)," Charlie Brown writes a wistful letter to his pen pal as the other cast members reenact the disastrous baseball game he is describing. In "Glee Club Rehearsal," the kids bicker over a pencil while practicing "Home on the Range." It's hard to believe that the excellent musical accompaniment on the CD is by a band of only three, led by music director Eric Svejcar at the piano.
The remarkable Joshua Colley lends his angelic voice to the role of Charlie Brown. If he seems a little too cute to be downtrodden (and too talented--wouldn't Charlie Brown have a gloomy monotone rather than a soaring choirboy voice? But would we want to listen to that in a lead role?), he does do some real acting in the role to convince us otherwise. To get a sense of his talent, don't miss the bonus track in which Colley performs "The Kite" live at 54 Below, in the concert performance that inspired this revival--his voice was higher then and perhaps even more lovely. It will be exciting to see how he develops into more mature roles. In the meantime, we can enjoy footage of him online in the Paper Mill production of A BRONX TALE, as well as his standout turn as Angelica in the MISCAST performance of "Schuyler Sisters" with boys singing the roles of the three sisters.
Aidan Gemme makes a delightful Snoopy and takes on his role with great brio, chewing the scenery as a hungry dog ought to. He takes stock of his life in the sweet and lively "Snoopy" and battles with his imaginary nemesis in "The Red Baron." His best number is "Suppertime," in which his extreme enthusiasm for being fed explodes into a song-and-dance showcase, much to Charlie Brown's embarrassment. Gemme performs with tremendous vocal flair and invention; just compare it to the bland rendition in the 1985 animated special of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. Drawing inspiration from Roger Bart's turn as Snoopy on Broadway, Gemme clearly put some thought into playing a dog, and his barks and growls are as effective as his doglike physical mannerisms were onstage.
Mavis Simpson-Ernst, who makes an appropriately strident and tart-tongued Lucy, has smaller shoes to step into than her co-star Milly Shapiro; this revival includes the two songs written by Andrew Lippa for the 1999 Broadway production, one of which, "My New Philosophy," was written specifically for the explosive new talent Kristin Chenoweth, who garnered a Tony for her performance as Sally. But Shapiro (who in fact has already earned a special Tony honor as one of the four original stars of MATILDA) brings her youth, her bright singing voice, and her own energy to the role, and seems as undaunted by her predecessor as the character Sally would have been.
In general, Colley aside, the performers do better with their songs than with their bits of dialogue. 54 Below Director of Programming Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Broadway Records producer Van Dean conceived the 54 Below show in order to showcase children in the roles they often play in school and amateur productions--but to cast professionally accomplished children. There is some unevenness in the level of the performances, but the show did come across as they'd envisioned both at 54 Below and in its clever staging at the York. Your reaction to the CD may be dictated by your feelings about the casting of this show: do you prefer adults who may be excellent vocally but hard to accept as child characters, or children who may be less perfect in musicianship and less proficient as actors but more authentic? The second option deserves a chance, and the CD of this lovely York Theatre production provides it.