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BWW Review: York Theatre Casts Broadway Kids In YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN


Having been born in 1959 and experiencing childhood in the decade where Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts enjoyed the height of its popularity, I give the artist full credit for allowing me a rudimentary frame of reference in regards to classical music, modern psychiatry, gender equality, self-loathing, the emotional comfort to be found with inanimate objects, the basics of World War I dogfighting and, of course, what the heck Christmas really means, all before reaching age 10. I also, through the music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio featured on the strip's animated specials, developed an early appreciation for cool jazz.

Gregory Diaz, Mavis Simpson-Ernst, Aiden
Gemme, Jeremy T. Villas, Milly Shapiro
and Joshua Colley (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Of course, nobody completely gets Peanuts when they're kids. The comparison of Jesus Christ to Mort Saul flew over my head, as did the special friendship between Peppermint Patty and Marcie and the significance of Franklin, the only black character, being the only one with a father fighting in Vietnam.

So when composer/lyricist Clark Gesner's Peanuts-based musical, YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, premiered in 1967, it was one of those hip, Off-Broadway shows tucked away in the East Village's Theatre 80 with full-grown adults playing Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder and Patty (a side-kick of Lucy's that was eventually written out of the strip). Gesner, the cast and staff members pieced together an assortment of quick scenes, monologues and one-liners to fit between the eleven songs and credited their book to the fictitious John Gordon.

In 1999, a Broadway production was created with Andrew Lippa providing two new songs and giving the title tune a backbeat. Director Michael Mayer revised the script and the character Patty was replaced by Charlie Brown's younger sister Sally, giving Kristin Chenoweth a vehicle for a Best Supporting Actress Tony win.

Mavis Simpson-Ernst and Joshua Colley
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

It's that revised version that the York Theatre Company has mounted with a charming and talented cast of kid actors, all of whom have impressive theatre credits. Naturally, there are some inherent problems with the concept. There are cases where the songs don't sound completely comfortable in developing voices and much of the humor is lost because the young actors don't always seem to know what their lines mean, often racing through the clever material.

That's not to say that director Michael Unger's sunny and sweet production isn't enjoyable. Joshua Colley, who was terrific in Paper Mill's recent production of A BRONX TALE, definitely gets the self-defeating fears of the title character. His delivery is often reminiscent of a young Woody Allen, especially in Charlie Brown's lunchtime monologue where he pines over the little red-haired girl he sees across the schoolyard.

Milly Shapiro, one of Broadway's original quartet of Matildas, makes for a serious-minded Sally, which works especially well when debating her teacher over her grade in an art project. Jeremy T. Villas shows off some snazzy ballet skills as Linus, joyously dancing with his security blanket.

Mavis Simpson-Ernst (Lucy), Aidan Gemme (Snoopy) and Gregory Diaz (Schroeder) all give appealing and energetic performances.

The cheerfully colorful designs are by Brian Prather (set), Grier Coleman (costumes) and Graham Kindred (lights), with music director Eric Svejcar leading an on-stage three-piece band.

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