Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2005
This was at least the fourth production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown that I have seen. As a child I saw the original off-Broadway production with Gary Burghoff (later “Radar” on M*A*S*H*), Reva Rose, and Skip and Bill Hinnant. As a senior in high school I appeared as Snoopy, a dreadful bit of casting if ever there was one. In 1999 I took my younger son to see the short-lived Broadway production, where we were treated to the Tony-award winning performances of Roger Bart as Snoopy and Kristin Chenoweth as Sally Brown.
And last night I went to the basement of MCLA’s Church Street Center and saw the opening night performance by Mill City Produtions.
There are some very, very good things in this production, and there are some flaws that can easily be fixed. Then there are some problems, not unique in an amateur production, that just have to be lived with.
Let me start by explaining that there are now two versions of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, the original off-Broadway version in which the seventh character is not Sally Brown but Patty (not Peppermint Patty, an even older and far more non-descript character from the early Peanuts strips); and the Broadway version, which contains two new songs, many new orchestrations, and the Patty/Sally character swap. It is the latter that Mill City has chosen to perform. Before you start writing me irate letters stating that Sally Brown isn’t in the show and that Schroeder doesn’t have a solo, let me assure you that in this version she is and he does.
Now, let’s focus on what is really excellent in this production. Joshua Sprague as Snoopy and Sarah Simon as Lucy. Perfect casting. Fabulous voices. Endearing performances.
I have seen Simon several times before and knew that she would be a stand-out as everyone’s favorite fussbudget. She can belt out a song and play feisty really well. Mike Grogan has designed and Pam Langlois of Hemmingway has executed costumes that really evoke Schultz’s cartoons, and Simon’s blue Lucy dress is a perfect recreation of Ms. Van Pelt’s signature look. Combined with Lauren Forbes equally excellent hair and make-up and Simon looks as if she walked right out of the Funny Papers.
Having raved about Lucy’s costume, the only costume choice that really took me aback was Snoopy’s. Sprague wore a dog suit…with a tail. That’s just NOT done. The original off-Broadway Snoopy was a guy in black trousers and a white turtleneck. The 1999 Broadway Snoopy was a guy in white trousers and a white sweater with a big black spot on the back. But Snoopy is NEVER a guy in a dog suit!
But it did not take me long to revive from my initial shock and settle down to really enjoy Sprague’s performance. It was a very thoroughly canine interpretation of the role, and so the dog suit actually worked. If you have a dog or have ever had a meaningful relationship with one, you will get a big kick out of many of Sprague’s bits. And he is a wonderful singer, by far the best voice in the cast, so he’s a pleasure to listen to. But the thing that really sold me were his movements. He moves the way Schultz draws Snoopy as moving – not the way a real dog moves, but the way Snoopy moves. I kept watching him and saying, “Yes, that’s how Snoopy does it.”
Coming in with marks of “Very Good Plus” are Staci Downey as Sally and Timothy Vecchiarelli as Schroeder. Downey, another Mill City regular, is an adorable blonde with a fine voice. Once again Grogran, Langlois, and Forbes have teamed up to really make her look like Schultz’s Sally, which is fun. She bounces through her role with flare.
Vecchiarelli is also a strong singer and I enjoyed his performance. He would have gotten an “Excellent” from me if only I hadn’t caught him a couple of times with what I identified as a forced “children’s theatre” smile on his face.
I have to say that, while I am an old curmudgeon and generally prefer the orchestrations from the original off-Broadway version of the show, I do think the Patty/Sally swap and the new numbers for Sally and Schroeder are a big improvement. It was never any fair that Schroeder, although blessed with a wonderful part in Book Report, didn’t get a solo number. And who was that Patty chick anyway?
I really liked Marissa Carlson as Linus. That she wasn’t the best thing on the stage can be attributed to the fact that she was also the director and has a full-time day job and there is just so much one woman can do, after all. The overall direction of the show was great. The transitions dragged, but those can easily be tightened up. I did see the opening night performance and things always get crisper and zippier as the run of a show progresses. I was disappointed in her singing though. I know Carlson can sing perfectly well, but not only was her solo on My Blanket and Me weak, but she was frequently off-key in the ensemble numbers, which just can’t happen.
And speaking of off-key, there’s Tim Mangun as Charlie Brown. Sad to say, I found him the weak link in the cast both vocally and as an actor. Now this is a very strong amateur cast, and to be the weakest of seven strong performers is not the worst thing that can happen. Mangun does a lot of things right, and he certainly looks like Charlie Brown. In fact I think he’s the Charlie Browniest Charlie Brown I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.
Am I being harsh? No, just honest. This is an amateur production. To pretend that it is a professional one or to hold it to professional standards would be harsh. The performers, the designers, the musicians are not paid professionals, they are doing this because they love it and they want to entertain you. So, the show isn't perfect. It is lots of fun, highly entertaining and well worth the price of admission.
Wonderful moments abound: Snoopy fighting the Red Baron and dancing deliriously with his supper dish, Lucy giving Linus an hilarious lesson in Little Known Facts, Schroeder placing his bust of Beethoven lovingly on that tiny piano before sitting down to play the Moonlight Sonata, Sally challenging Miss Othmar on receiving a grade of C in coat hanger sculpture, Charlie Brown wrestling with his kite and seeking Lucy’s psychiatric advice (that’ll be five cents, please), and a Very Little League Baseball game staged in the audience. Carlson and the Mill City team have a lot to be proud of in this their first musical offering.
You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown will be performed March 18, 19, 25 & 26 at 7 p.m. and March 20 at 2 p.m. at the MCLA Church Street Center in North Adams. Park behind the building from Porter Street or Elmwood Avenue and enter by the back door. The show runs two hours hour with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For more information visit the Mill City Productions Web site.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004