BWW Review: CoPlayers Theatre Hits One Out of the Park With YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN
Filled to overflowing with youthful energy and plenty of showbiz razzle-dazzle, CoPlayers Theatre's production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown - directed and choreographed by the peripatetic Tosha Pendergrast, easily the busiest musical theater choreographer in Middle Tennessee - does what so many other renditions of the show have failed to do over the years: Thoroughly entertain me! And, in so doing, Pendergrast and her ensemble of impressive young actors have erased from my preferred Charlie Brown vocabulary such words as boring, vapid and stultifying, instead replacing them with electrifying, engaging and fun (which normally should be written in all caps and followed by a surfeit of exclamation marks)!
But make no mistake about it: Pendergrast's take on You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, which continues at the young theater company's home at Madison Church of Christ through April 15 (a date that should send cold chills down the spine of any taxpaying American - even if this year's deadline day is actually April 17), is enormously entertaining thanks to her vision for the show and the six amiable, yet amazingly committed and focused, actors who bring the various characters from Charles M. Schultz's comic strip to life onstage.
Heretofore, the show has always left me adrift and hoping for more to satisfy my musical theater demands. On the surface, its skimpy book leaves much to be desired and the score has always landed with an unsatisfying "meh." However, with a spirited updating (which includes additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) for the most recent Broadway revival, Charlie Brown proves a better fit for musical theater aficionados who want more from their theatrical diversions.
Of course, it helps if one is a fan of the entire Schultz oeuvre and his candid, reflective treatment of childhood and its many travails: His characters are wonderfully wise beyond their years and his acknowledgement of the many issues that have an impact on children has always been far more complex than a cursory examination of his comic strips might first suggest. Yet what's always bothered me about the musical theater version of Charlie Brown has been how one-dimensional the characters have been portrayed in the show's original book by Clark Gesner.
Now that seems rectified and Charlie Brown, his petulant younger sister Sally, overbearing classmate Lucy, her introspective little brother Linus, piano prodigy Schroeder and CB's beloved beagle Snoopy make a much better impression, with musical numbers designed to better show off their apparent attributes in order to appeal to audiences of all ages. There's nothing life-changing or emotionally shattering about You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown - and that's a good thing, truth be told - but what is there is sweetly evocative and emotionally uplifting. You're just as likely to have your heart thoroughly warmed by the gang's onstage antics as you are to be leaving the theater with "Happiness" reverberating through your brain.
Pendergrast's direction keeps the quickly paced show moving along with a kinetic energy that keeps the mind from wandering (not once, in fact, did I start writing my grocery list - a surefire indication that I'm bored when at the theater) and she's created some pretty nifty dance steps that show off her ensemble's considerable talents.
Nathan Stultz is delightful as the eponymous lead character, giving us a Charlie Brown who remains hopeful even as life attempts to bear down upon him and to sap him of his ability to cope. Instead, Stultz' Charlie remains upbeat, refusing to ever be defeated even while never pitching a winning baseball game and the actor's ability to exude warmth cannot be denied.
Kayla Petrille's Sally Brown is joyful and full of energy, if somewhat spoiled and scene-stealing in the way that all younger sisters are and thanks to Petrille's super stage presence, you are never able to take your eyes off her when she's onstage. Her "My New Philosophy" is, clearly, on of the show's musical highlights. As Lucy, Emily Dennis delivers an eminently watchable performance and her command of the stage is impressive. Dennis' ability to somehow manage Lucy's rather off-putting personality while being thoroughly delightful should be trademarked and/or copyrighted as quickly as possible. Both Dennis and her Lucy deserve to be the Queen of All Time.
Carter Wright is charming as Linus, making the most of his blanket time to create a surprisingly - and altogether unexpected - sensitive portrait of a young boy finding his way in the world. His interactions with Dennis as the overbearing Lucy are terrific. Blake Holliday makes the most of his time in the show's spotlight to create an indelible image of Schroeder, who is clearly the most artistic member of the Peanuts gang. Holliday has built an impressive resume during his time on the local stage and we look forward to see him grow even more in roles that would challenge him to do more than what we've come to know of his work.
Finally, Daniel Caarrasquillo is wonderfully cast as Charlie Brown's diffident and not-always-so-loyal dog Snoopy, showing off his tremendous gymnastic skills in a well-crafted performance that highlights the beagle's anthropomorphic attributes and sardonic humor to perfection. His "Suppertime" - which comes near the end of the second act - is particularly noteworthy.
Musical director Rollie Mains and his cohorts in the show's band - Brad Williamson on percussion, Luke Easterling on bass and Laurie Canaan on violin - provide superb accompaniment to the sextet of actors cavorting upon the stage and, quite frankly, we've never heard a more polished or confident performance of the show's score.
Designer Easton Curtis, the ridiculously impressive founder of CoPlayers Theatre (seriously, this talented young man is someone we all need to watch and to, perhaps, emulate), provides a terrific setting for the play's action, with enough tongue-in-cheekiness glee to guarantee a smile on your face throughout the proceedings.
You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Based on the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schultz. Book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner. Additional dialogue by Michael Mayer. Additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Directed and choreographed by Tosha Pendergrast. Musical direction by Rollie Mains. Presented by CoPlayers Theatre, at Madison Church of Christ. Through April 15. For details, go to www.coplayerstheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).