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BWW Reviews: YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, Junior Division, at GCT

As a youngster growing up near Memphis, I was addicted to the comic strips in the morning MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL and in the evening MEMPHIS PRESS SCIMITAR - however, I generally ignored Charles M. Schultz' wry, understated, gentle humor in PEANUTS. I was more interested in Chester Gould's DICK TRACY, with its exaggerated villains (i.e., "Miss Egghead") and two-way wrist radios. In 1964, though, as I prepared to take a Memphis to Chattanooga bus ride with a group of fellow students from Germantown High School, I bought a paperback collection of PEANUTS strips at Doc Posey's Drugstore to help pass the time on the seemingly interminable trip. Then and there, I began to enjoy what Schultz was doing with his little gallery of players. Certainly, by the time the classic television special A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS was aired in 1965 (with that wonderful score by Lee Mendelson), I had become one of the faithful. To this day, I must admit, when I associate music with PEANUTS, it has less to do with the score of Clark Gesner's "labor of love," YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN than it does with Mendelson's justifiably infectious, jazzy piano stylings from that animated special. However, that does not negate the fact that this is a musical that sweetly, winningly insinuates itself with the audience.

Director Justin Asher, who must have the battery cells of an "energizer bunny," claims that he has always wanted to helm a production since first performing in it a number of years ago. In his current staging at Germantown Community Theatre, his wishes have been doubly fulfilled: Not only is there an adult cast, but there is also a rotating one with . . . actual youngsters; and it is the latter that had me smiling this weekend. Germantown Community Theatre was once an actual elementary school, and because of that - and because it is also well suited to small-scale, intimate productions - there's a kind of organic feel to this colorful little production. (The set is a perfect example of what imagination and primary colors can accomplish in a limited space.)

Audience members should not assume that, just because youngsters embody the Schultzian microcosm, this is only a step up from an eighth grade play, because the performances here not only encapsulate the innocence of the PEANUTS characters, but also demonstrate incipient talents reaching out in different directions. Not too long ago, I attended (and reviewed) a very fine production of THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and I was especially impressed by the young man playing "Pugsley," Oakley Weddie. He was impressive in that - and he is equally impressive as Schutz' sweet sadsack "Charlie Brown." (As a former instructor, I always associated "Charlie" with the "C" student.) He is always plugging away, often coming up short, expecially when compared to the Beethoven-obsessed "Schroeder" or the entrepreneurial, bossy "Lucy."

The genesis of Gesner's work was a concert album, not a musical per se. However, that actually parallels what Schultz was doing with his little strips. Unlike, for example, a "continuing saga" you might find with a REX MORGAN, M.D. or (dear old) MARY WORTH, the daily panels of PEANUTS were complete unto themselves; and the nature of this production actually mirrors that. The little vignettes that zip by are deceptively simple; sometimes there's a hint of existentialism here - a consideration of philosophy, there. These wistful, humorous insights are blips on a larger, darker radar screen. For example, "Sally," skipping rope, is like Sisyphus rolling his rock - there's no end to it; it's like the famous Laurel and Hardy short in which they struggle continuously to deliver a piano to the top of the stoop, but it finds a way of rolling back down. (I somehow think Samuel Beckett would smile at this.)

Of course, these wry observations are intermingled with moments of childhood which we all have experienced and smile to recall - the loss of a baseball game, the "C" on a paper, the flying of a kite, the presentation of a Valentine's Day card, and the dreaded oral book report; and the various songs evoke the humor and humanity that have certified PEANUTS as one of the enduring comic strips. The three-person combo led by Music Director Jason Eschofen occupies the back of the stage, and the accompaniment is perfect; and Choreographer Amy Hanford (her entire family consists of dancers: their baby steps were probably time steps) has captured the gangly charms of the animated specials - there's no denying the inventiveness and joy of the movements on stage, an explosion of primary colors and blocks by Set Designer Andy Saunders. The love and appreciation that Director Justin Asher has for this production are everywhere apparent.

I can't imagine a better cast of young performers (I am tempted to return for a performance by the adult cast). It's refreshing to have a peek at a generation that, in just a few short years, will more than likely be mainstays of local theatre. Oakley Weddle's "Charlie Brown," obsessing over the "red haired girl," is sweet natured, and his voice is strong and assured; gangly little sister "Sally," enacted by string-bean dynamo Katy Cotton (more curls there than Medusa), is delightfully, incipiently psychotic in some of her surprising outbursts and reactions (you'll love her conference with a teacher); Bailey Dumiao's blondined "Schroeder" perfectly emulates the posture of PEANUTS' resident musician (his "Peter Rabbit" book report is energetically and hilariously rendered); a thumb-sucking Carson Scott, swathed in the inseparable blanket of sweet-natured "Linus," is innocence personified; Gia Welch's "Snoopy" knows how to roll around and howl (and wittily define humans from a canine perspective); and, finally, Rachel Adkins has an uncanny ability to portray the grimace on the face of the unpleasant (and always enjoyable) "Lucy." (When Schroeder informs her that she is "crabby," she becomes so self-conscious that she prepares a survey to gauge how others feel about her.) PEANUTS was always better for her bossy, demanding presence. (I do miss "Pigpen," though; he would be a challenge to present, I imagine, with all of that detritus whirling about him.)

This musical may be small-scale in its setting and limited in its budget, but it is very large-scale in the enjoyment and pleasure it imparts. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Cotten. Through April 26.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)