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‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ at NextStop Theatre Company

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Director Jennifer Lambert has coached two casts of 13 talented youngsters—plus a baby who plays Woodstock–to their natural best and the simplicity of A Charlie Brown Christmas’ lets their true spirits shine through in NextStop Theatre Company’s adorable holiday treat.

Hudson Osborne and Owen Gaskill. Photo by Jonathan Harvey.

Hudson Osborne and Owen Gaskill. Photo by Jonathan Harvey.

Based on the television special by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson with a stage adaptation by Eric Schaeffer, A Charlie Brown Christmas is artfully staged, opening with an ice skating scene in which the actors appear to glide on top of a revolving disk set slightly above stage level.

Charlie Brown is sad even though it is Christmas, but to cheer him up, Lucy suggests he direct a play, but his friends mock him.

Owen Gaskill showed a range of emotions as Charlie Brown on opening night. “I know nobody likes me, but why do we have to have a holiday just to emphasize it?” The speed and accuracy with which he shifted from sad to happy to disgusted to puzzled was impressive in one so young. Gaskill, who got the role on his first-ever audition, is also good at playing up to the audience, whose members were ensconced in stadium-style seating, some nursing a special drink made of cider with maple-flavored whiskey.

Although it appeals to children, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a show for adults. And a large part of the charm is that for many of them, their own children are playing the roles that they once watched on TV. One parent even confided that he watches A Charlie Brown Christmas every May in addition to their family’s regular December viewing. The holiday staple has been televised annually for 49 years.

From her psychiatric booth, Alexandra Harbourt’s Lucy rattled off an impressive list of the phobias that could be causing Charlie Brown’s depression, ending with pantaphobia: fear of everything. Harbourt is expressive and is especially good when she flings her arms wide to make a point.

Hudson Osborne’s Snoopy steals the show with his unfettered dancing on top of Schroeder’s piano and other antics, such as gussying up his dog house with Christmas swag.

As Linus, earnest-looking Kieran Romano did a great monolog on what Christmas is all about, sounding very much like the child voice actor Chris Shea from the TV special.

As Sally, the forthright Claire Johnson made the audience laugh when she stamped her foot and explained to her brother that she’s just trying to get what she has coming to her from Santa.

As Schroeder, Tim Swicord is good at playing air piano: he has a real sense of rhythm even though the lovely music was coming from pianist Joey Rudek.

As Pigpen, Adam Dockins remained blissfully unaware of his grubbiness even as he rolled a big, dusty snowball around, a feat of impressive special effects.

As Shermy, Erik Peyton does an adorable stiff-legged dance that is worth the price of admission and gives new meaning to the theatrical well-wishing of “break a leg.”

As Freida, Abbey Whitestone preened her long, curly, blond hair lovingly.

Riley Quinter sang well as Patty, as did Emily Whitestone as Violet.

Simone Staub-Clark portrayed the character named Three with an absolutely joyful demeanor, while Emma Harris’ Four knew her part cold and probably everyone else’s too.

There are two separate casts performing on different days/times for this production; the Peace Cast and the Joy Cast. The Peace Cast is covered in this review. The Joy cast is composed of Henry Metcalf (Charlie Brown), Hannah Rosman (Lucy), Ethan Van Slyke (Snoopy), Jon Scanlan (Linus), Ivy Ridenhour (Sally), Anders Ogelman (Schroeder) Connor Brunson (Pig Pen) Dylan Wolf (Shermy), Ruth McCoy Miles ( Frieda), Mallory St. Arnold (Patty), Maggie Slivka (Violet), Kayla Rothstein (Three), and Madeline Ice (Four).  All the children were coached by Vocal Director Dana Van Slyke, and the singing was really nice.

There is one actor who appears in both casts: Woodstock is being played adorably by Miles Hoffmann. He gets wheeled onstage in a wagon and has been known to hand cards to people in the front row. He is the baby son of NextStop Artistic Director Evan Hoffman, who was in the company’s first show featuring child actors in when the then-Elden Street Players did The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in 1992.

The Cast of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'  Photo by Jonathan Harvey.

The cast of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.’ Photo by Jonathan Harvey.

The set by the elder Hoffmann and Jon Harvey included a revolving disk that made it look like the children were ice skating. Down below, the floor of the stage was painted white with blue speckles to extend the snowscape from the scenery.

Costume Designer Kristina Martin kept things simple with a T-shirt with a round dot on the back for Snoopy, a yellow T-shirt with a zig-zag pattern for Charlie Brown, a blue dropped-waist dress for Lucy. Charlie Brown’s hand-checkered hat was a nice touch.

Lighting Designer Brian Stefaniak  provided nice dappled snowfall lighting effects and somehow kept the children’s faces illuminated even when they wore brimmed hats.

The scenes and sounds were also reminiscent of the TV special. The outstanding Christmas trees and other properties were designed by Sierra Bannack. Sound Designer Stan Harris featured the tinkling of pine needles as they fell from a tree.

The music directed by Bryan Case was a highlight of a show. With Case on bass along with  Rudek on piano and James Adelsberger on drums, it featured the original jazz score by Vince Guaraldi.

NextStop Theatre Company’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is a simple, nostalgic, heartwarming pleasure just in time for the holidays.

Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas plays through December 21, 2014 at NextStop Theatre Company- 269 Sunset Drive Park, in Herndon, VA. The show is sold out but standby tickets may be available at the box office if you show up one hour before the show.

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