‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ at Reston Community Players

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Reston Community Players’ You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown is a sweet and serious show that will warm the cockles of your heart. This delightful 1967 musical comedy has music and lyrics by Clark Gesner.

The spark that starts the fire is that it is based on the Peanuts comic strip created by Charles M. Schultz (1922-2000), whose nickname was actually Sparky. Director Rich Bird has blown each one Schultz’s indelible characters into a nicely kindled flame with this delightful production, which features great casting (the characters look like their cartoon counterparts), and great direction and choreography (they act like they did in the popular animated TV shows).

It can’t be easy to flesh out what is essentially a two-dimensional art form without erasing some of its original charm, but Bird and the Reston Community Players do an admirable job. For example, the scene stealer for my nephew, Mark Kelley, a seventh grader, is Snoopy’s “Suppertime” song, in which he tap dances ecstatically with his dog dish.

Rich Farella sings “Happiness” as Charlie Brown. Left to right are: Nina Jankowicz as Sally, Eric Hughes as Schroeder, Rich Farella, Terry Barr as Snoopy, Patrick Graham as Linus and Alana D. Sharp as Lucy. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.
Rich Farella sings “Happiness” as Charlie Brown. Left to right are: Nina Jankowicz (Sally), Eric Hughes (Schroeder,) Rich Farella, Terry Barr (Snoopy), Patrick Graham (Linus ), and Alana D. Sharp (Lucy). Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

“He went a little bit crazy. It was good,” said Mark in reference to actor Terry Barr. Barr shares Jim Carrey’s mobile features and the ability to project expressions and mimic body language. With the help of Choreographers Jennifer Lambert and Blake Green, Barr takes what is most endearing about Snoopy and amplifies it, especially when he’s sitting atop his dog house as the World War II Flying Ace fighting the imaginary Red Baron.

The biggest scene stealer for me is Patrick Graham as Linus Van Pelt, who reveals his character most endearingly in a song called “My Blanket and Me,” in which he dances with his security blanket with a simplicity that expresses his unbridled joy in the beloved object. It is as if he is experiencing a direct feed from Schultz’s creative spirit.

Rich Farella brings the perfect mix of earnestness and worry to his depiction of Charlie Brown, who is thought to be autobiographical for Schultz. Farella anchors the ensemble’s musical numbers with his warm singing voice. He is especially enjoyable in the song “The Book Report,” in which he mulls, “How do they expect us to write a book report of any quality in just two days” and justifies procrastinating because he won’t do a good job since he is tired.

Nina Jankowicz plays Sally Brown and is really fun to watch in “Rabbit Chasing” with Snoopy, and “My New Philosophy” with Schroeder (Eric Hughes). Hughes’s jazzy song “Beethoven Day” reveals his tortured genius.

It strikes me after watching the show that while the male characters are earnest (Charlie Brown), philosophical (Linus), or intellectual (Schroeder), the female characters are slightly annoying, with Lucy’s superiority and Sally’s self-centeredness taking center stage. Was Shultz perhaps a bit of a misogynist or simply a product of his times? I never would have given this a thought if it weren’t for the clarifying power of the musical, with book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner (with additional dialogue by Michael Mayer, and additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa). It premiered in 1967 off-Broadway, and in 1968 in London’s West End.  In 1999 the Broadway revival got Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Kristin Chenoweth as Sally) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Roger Bart as Snoopy) and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical.

While some of Schultz’s characters seem adult in their insight and perspective, Jankowicz appropriately portrays Sally as a childlike character, with “My New Philosophy” being a stand-out among her 11 numbers. Alana D. Sharp plays Lucy with a light touch that reveals gentler aspects of her character that could otherwise have been lost in her constant harangue. “Somehow Shultz bundled up all that angst, found the humor in it, and balanced the occasional meanness of children with sympathy and love,” wrote Director David Bird and Producer Laura Baughman in the program notes. This most clear in Lucy’s song “A Little Known Fact,” which takes place near her famous psychiatrist’s booth and is the most poignant moment in the show.

Eric Hughes (Schroeder) leads the cast for “Beethovin Day.” Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.
Eric Hughes (Schroeder) leads the cast for “Beethovin Day.” Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Other scenes taken directly from the comics include Schroeder playing piano, a baseball game,and a truly magical scene in which Charlie Brown flies his kite. Set Designers Richard Bird and Sara Birkhead replicated Schultz’s simple scenes on painted panels placed on wheeled wooden wagons and added an archetypal tree and fluffy cartoon clouds for outdoor scenes. Schroeder’s piano, Snoopy’s doghouse and a cartoon-like plant were all outstanding, and the scale of everything was just right. The lighting colors by Ian Claar on the background were pure and reminded me of the first time I watched a Peanuts TV special in color. The costumes by Kathy Dunlap, especially Lucy’s blue pleated dress, were great. I wish only that the zig-zags on Charlie Brown’s shirt were a bit thicker.

Reston Community Players is celebrating its 48th season this year and from the opening number of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown by the orchestra, conducted by Mark V. Deal, you know what’s in store: a well-done production that you can sit back and enjoy. The final song, “Happiness,” is especially touching because it makes you feel the sweetness of life and how great it is to be alive.

Running Time:One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

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You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown plays through November 7, 2014 at CenterStage at the Reston Community Center – 2310 Colts Neck Road, in Reston, VA. For tickets, call the CenterStage box office at (703) 476-4500 x 3, or purchase them online.

CenterStage is accessible to people in wheelchairs and offers listening devices for the hearing impaired.

LINKS

‘Working for Peanuts’: Meet the Cast of Reston Community Players’ ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’-Part 1: Alana Sharp and Eric Hughes.

‘Working for Peanuts’: Meet the Cast of Reston Community Players’ ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’-Part 2: Nina Jankowicz and Patrick Graham.

‘Working for Peanuts’: Meet the Cast of Reston Community Players’ ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown-Part 3: A Video Interview with Rich Farella and Terry Barr.