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BWW Review: A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is Fun & Festive at FIRST STAGE

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Holiday Fun for Kids Young and Old

BWW Review: A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is Fun & Festive at FIRST STAGE

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about: families making memories together, talking about what the holiday season means to them, and showing those on the sidelines a little love, care, and attention. If your holiday tradition includes an afternoon of seasonally-inspired theater, A Charlie Brown Christmas at First Stage is a delightfully adorable way to find the festive spirit.

Directed by Jeff Frank, Charlie Brown opens with a familiar Vince Guaraldi tune played on stage by pianist Paul Helm. Well, the tune is familiar for those nostalgic grown-ups in the audience. We can only hope that, with time, the kids learn to love all the personality this music lends. It just wouldn't be Charlie Brown without it -- so thank you, Paul Helm.

While we may be hard pressed to find a parent or guardian unfamiliar with A Charlie Brown Christmas, here's the gist: Charlie Brown is feeling down about Christmas. The holiday has become too commercial for his liking, and he's struggling to find its true meaning. In his search, he agrees to direct his fellow peanuts in their Christmas play. There's dancing, a sad little Christmas tree, a moving Sunday school monologue, and a merry resolution.

The play begins with Snoopy cleaning house. Man's best friend is played by J.T. Backes, who utters barely a word (except a hilariously-timed "BOOOOOOO!"), but brings a mighty dose of physical comedy. His Snoopy begins by diving repeatedly into his doghouse, retrieving everything from an inflatable duck floaty to a toaster to a houseplant, noiselessly chucking each off stage. The best Snoopy bit? The pup fumbling to unfold Charlie Brown's director's chair. This fiasco snagged howling laughter from the kids.

Other favorite moments include any imbued with theatrical magic. For instance, falling snow (made from torn-up plastic grocery bags), ice skating, and a charming Christmas tree transformation. Throughout the show are sweet little interludes where hardly a word is spoken. It's fun just to watch these kid actors at play as the piano trills along.

On this particular Sunday afternoon of opening weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing the Schulz Cast. Eighth-grader Edward Owczarski is an endearing Charlie Brown, buoyed by his faithful pal Linus, eighth-grader William Swoboda. Giving the boys a hard time is Lucy, strongly played by high school senior Ailie Snyder, now in her fourth season with First Stage. The rest of the Schulz cast is to be particularly commended on their chorus of carols and, my personal favorite, their dance moves.

From Shermy's pseudo running man to Frieda's swingin' hop-together-hop, choreographer Chris Feiereisen brings the cartoon choreo to life. With particularly darling outerwear, costumes by Jason Orlenko are a cheerful rainbow of color with the likes of fur earmuffs and snazzy saddle shoes to complete the fashionable picture.

In the end, while the nostalgia, references to the Red Baron, and the piano appreciation may fall to the grown-ups, I have it on good authority that the kiddos will walk away from A Charlie Brown Christmas loving Snoopy's antics and the magic of the little Christmas tree. As my niece observed: "They turned the little tree into a beautiful one because they all cared for it." Sweet wisdom from a five-year-old, who also leaned over mid-play to ask why everyone was being so mean to Charlie Brown.

Big thanks to First Stage for sparking conversations and realizations in Milwaukee's children. Not only do shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas leave little ones entertained, but their minds and hearts are challenged to put themselves in the shoes of the characters on stage. To see what they make of it is an oft-insightful, inspiring end to an already-memorable bit of theater.

Photo Credit: Paul Ruffolo


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