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BWW Review: Al Fresco CHARLIE BROWN in Sierra Madre taps Nostalgia

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Peanuts Musical at Sierra Madre Memorial Park through September 12

BWW Review: Al Fresco CHARLIE BROWN in Sierra Madre taps Nostalgia

Is grief good?

Charlie Brown, that luckless, ever-persistent, round-headed kid of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strips certainly thinks so. It's his signature line, after all, and boy oh boy does he have reason to utter it.

There's also some compelling evidence that Clark Gesner - the man who transformed a selection of Peanuts strips into the 1967 musical, YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN - is a believer in the goodness of grief. Ditto, Michael Mayer and Andrew Lippa who added a couple of songs for the show's 1999 Broadway revival that established Kristin Chenoweth as a musical theater force of nature and also captured a Tony Award for Roger Bart.

Don't get me wrong. CHARLIE BROWN is by no means a musical about grief as in loss or sadness. Our subjects are five kids and a unique dog whose quirkiness and observations about life, relationships and human nature have been diverting audiences of all ages for more than half a century. We are expected to laugh at - and hopefully with - the foibles of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder and the gang.

While there are laughs to be had, nostalgia to be indulged and sporadic in Christian Lebano's production of YAGM CHARLIE BROWN for the Sierra Madre Playhouse, there is also a certain quotient of angst that no bright costumes or cutesy set pieces can disguise. Lebano seems to recognize and lean into this. The opening number (the musical's tile song) finds our title hero in his bed, besieged by voices (supplied by the ensemble) and terrified at the day he is about to face. What's on the docket today for Charlie Brown? An un-flyable kite? Loneliness? Blowing the baseball game? The realization (make that reminder) that he is, in every sense a failure? It's all of the above and Hamilton Davis Weaver's Charlie Brown is, despite his boyish charisma, awash in misery practically from the get-go.

Hapless Charlie Brown's hardly the only candidate for the therapist's couch. His little sister Sally ties herself into knots over everything at school and marvels over the futility of life while jumping rope. Type-A bully Lucy conducts a survey of her friends to assess her crabbiness quotient (it's high). Her kid brother Linus, arguably the most cerebral and well-adjusted of the bunch, drags around a blanket and sings about his habit: "It's foolish. I know it; I'll try to outgrow it." Schroeder lives to play his toy piano and advocates to make Beethoven's Birthday a school holiday. Even Snoopy is hardly a carefree pup. Between contemplating his place in the universe and getting into, er, dogfights with the Red Baron as the World War I Flying Ace, our favorite beagle lives anything but a dog's life.

They may all be depressed as well as a little bit nuts, but at least they're recognizably from Schulz's pen. For the SMP staging in Sierra Madre Memorial Park, set designer Nicholas Santiago has reproduced visual hallmarks from the comic strip like the brick wall on which Charlie Brown and Linus perch for their worldly musings; Snoopy's doghouse; Lucy's psychiatry booth and that cloud-dotted blue sky. Shon LeBlanc's costumes are colorful and evocative of the strip as well.

The SMP players themselves are a multi-cultural group of 20 or 30somethings who don't make the mistake of trying to turn these characters into precocious little imps. The exception is a blond wigged Marcha Kia, whose Sally Brown employs a voice that lands somewhere between toddler TV and Marilyn Monroe. Kia and Alexander Mashikian's Snoopy camp it up playfully in an interlude during which Sally and Snoopy go on a rabbit hunt. When solo, Mashikian laces Snoopy with a healthy blend of archness and irony, but he's not too cool to go nuts over the arrival of his dinner during the Eleven o'clock number, "Suppertime."

All the male characters -- and for that matter, Snoopy too -- have occasion to tremble at the approach of Mary Zastrow's Lucy whose meanness is considerable. The realization that she is, despite her self-adoration a seriously crabby person seems to take Zastrow truly by surprise. Luke Sweeney's Schroeder sings beautifully, rocks "Beethoven Day" and anchors the "Book Report" song in which several of the characters have to figure out a way to come up with 100 words on Peter Rabbit. As Linus, a smooth-talking Melvin Biteng employs a knowing glance, a wisdom well beyond the character's years and, when appropriate, some soft shoe hoofing ability.

If you are of an age to know and love these characters from their Sunday funnies roots, you will probably recognize them in Lebano's company. If you're young enough to confuse Schroeder with the guy who played point guard for the Lakers last season, the magic may well have its limits. Yes, the Peanuts gang members are wonderfully insecure, just like the rest of us. Yes, they're not too messed up to recognize at day's end that "happiness is anyone or anything at all that's loved by you." And, yes, that's still an important realization.

Still, all this makes for comfort rather than enchantment. The strip may be ageless. The musical, not so much.

YOU'RE a GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN plays through September 12. Tickets are available at http://sierramadreplayhouse.org or by calling (626) 355-4318.

Photo of Hamilton Davis Weaver as Charlie Brown; Mary Zastrow as Lucy; Marcha Kia as Sally; Luke Sweeney as Schroeder; Alexander Mashikian as Snoopy and Melvin Biteng as Linus by John Dlugolecki.


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