BWW Interview: Choreographer Jennifer Paulson-Lee Talks YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN
It's only a few moments before choreographer Jennifer Paulson-Lee, will watch her cast give the press a "sneak peek" of their rehearsals. They're preparing to perform three musical numbers from "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" which will be presented at the York Theatre Company beginning this week for a limited engagement. What's unique about this revival is the fact that a pint-sized cast of 9 to 13 year olds is performing all the roles. But don't let their ages fool you. This young bunch of talented thespians has a list of professional credits that any seasoned 35-year-old performer would envy. As the press files into the theatre, Paulson-Lee is busy making last minute corrections on her young charges. She is gentle and soft-spoken yet gets her point across to these eager children who take her notes and make the adjustments on the spot. The mutual love and admiration between this gang of peanuts and their dance master is all too evident.
For the next twenty minutes, the kids literally hit the ball out of the park with their performances-all while Paulson-Lee sits in the audience beaming. Just like a proud mom whose child brought home the first report card full of all "A's."
To celebrate the return of the musical with this all-kid cast, I spoke with Jennifer about her work. She told me how she creates the movement, and what it's like to work with such super-talented kids. Check out what she had to say, below.
Congratulations on that wonderful sneak peek performance! You must be very happy.
With one week left before previews, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to perform in front of a small group. Audience response is such an important factor, and it was fun to see the kids tune in on the excitement. They did a fantastic job and we learned a lot as a creative team as well.
How did you become involved in this production?
I started working with Director Michael Unger in 2005 on a production of Kander and Ebb's The Rink. I met our producer Van Dean in 2013 when Michael asked me to work in Newtown, CT on Seussical, the Musical. I have known Jim Morgan , Artistic director at the York Theatre since 2000 and have worked at the York several times including Enter Laughing, the Musical. So here we are now together for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
What have rehearsals been like?
Rehearsals are going great! These kids are really pros-but we can't forget they are kids. They're funny, creative and have more ideas than you can imagine. "Oh we can do this, and then we can do that, oh oo oo oo wait, let's do it this way." They're so energized and into it. I find myself saying, "Ok, wait a second, let's just raise hands. We have seven ideas here so let's pick one-how about my idea- and we'll follow that path for a minute and see how we like it."
So you actually collaborate with them?
Yes, just like I would work with any other professional. I let them come up with these ideas and then I follow their instincts. They're the ones creating these characters for us. They have to be alive, spontaneous and engaged- not just cookie cutter characters.
My signals come from the score, the story and the person doing the movement. Who is this character coming out of that body? How does that body move best? Does that performer have a contemporary feel when it comes to movement or are they classically trained? So when you combine all of that input, I'm given a more clear direction of how to work with that performer. I try to make the songs and story come alive with a sense of humor and a spontaneous factor.
Are you honoring any of the signature dance moves that have become synonymous with those old Charlie Brown television specials?
I grew up with Charlie Brown and lived for those specials to come on television. There are definitely little nods to the Charlie Brown cartoon specials. I figure you have to do it at least once.
Do you have a favorite number that you've done?
Oh gosh, every time I finish a number I say to myself, "That's my favorite number." So I end up saying that to all of them. I love "My Blanket and Me" because it spans such a fantasy world and is such a well-constructed musical piece. Jeremy T. Villas who plays Linus is one of those dance prodigy kids. Wait until you see him. He's just blowing me out of the water. He's also a great little actor. My job with him is to contain his energy so that he hits the moments cleanly and clearly acting-wise throughout the piece. What a nice problem to have, right?
How do you collaborate with your director, Michael Unger?
It's funny, but we're kind of like a husband and wife team. The type of duo where one of us will say, "That's a terrible idea, I have a better one for you." I'm only somewhat joking, as it's a wonderful and open collaboration. I do a lot of the musical staging and Michael backs me up with how to talk to the actors to build their character. We really do it together in many ways. It becomes almost like a tennis match where he'll have the ball first and I'll take over and vice versa.
I bet the intimacy of the York Theatre serves this piece well.
It's really charming and sort of like a little Charlie Brown theater in a way. It's not so slick, it's not BAM, and it doesn't have it's own vibe other than aiding the actors and productions that are inside the space. I think the key to "Charlie Brown" is to focus on that emotional attachment we have to these iconic characters such as Charlie Brown, Sally, Linus, and Schroeder. We already know who they are in our minds and we're familiar with those iconic renderings by Charles M. Schultz. But to walk into the York Theatre and have them come alive in an intimate setting that supports the characters is a wonderful thing.
Isn't it great that we have so many talented kids onstage today in shows like Matilda, School of Rock and now You're A Good Man Charlie Brown?
It's an amazing time for children on a New York stage. These kids are powerhouses and they're going to take over. It's great because that's what we all want- independent, energetic, forward-thinking and totally focused youth. It's empowering for the next generation and inspiring for the theater itself. And for the theatergoers looking at these young kids, they're going to follow them. They're going to want to!
Thank you, Jennifer. I can't wait to see the show!
What the Peanuts gang has to say about their fearless choreographer:
"She has a really creative mind! I like how she takes ideas from all of us to make it a child friendly performance." -- Gregory Diaz (Schroeder)
"Working with Jennifer is amazing and she's so sweet. She's helped me realize parts of my dancing repertoire that I didn't even know I had." --Mavis Simpson-Ernst (Lucy)
"Jennifer is one of the nicest people I've ever met and such a kind soul. I've always loved watching dance, but never thought of myself a dancer until she showed me how anyone can learn to dance." -- Aidan Gemme (Snoopy)
"Her choreography is awesome and her arch is amazing. She has such a nice foot! I love working with her." -- Jeremy T. Villas (Linus)
"Jen is wonderful. Kids aren't usually allowed to collaborate on a show, but since we're all kids she let us help her invent the show in a different way." -- Joshua Colley (Charlie Brown)
"She's so much fun and includes us in everything. She lets each one of us have input to help our characters really come to life." -- Milly Shapiro (Sally)
You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown begins performances on Tuesday, May 24, 2016 for a limited engagement through Sunday, June 26, 2016 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's (619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue). Opening Night is Tuesday, May 31, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Rafter-Keddy