I was one of those who groaned with dismay when I heard that Stratford was going to mount You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown this season. This is what it’s come to, I thought? Doing theatre for children can be tricky, and Stratford hasn’t always gotten it right; I remember a bunch of years that featured ho-hum dramatizations of classic novels, a kind of Masterpiece Theatre for the ten-to-twelve set. But a couple of years ago, they got it about as right as could possibly be with a knockout production of Peter Pan (the play, not the musical), and they were doing Pirates of Penzance this year. Did they really have to do Charlie Brown? Really?
Moreover, I had a personal reason for apprehension. I was in the show in junior high. I played Schroeder, the only character who, in the original version of the show, didn’t get a song of his own. But he did get serenaded, by Lucy. Her song consisted of repeated, nay, escalating threats to marry me. It was terrifying.
But we were in Stratford with our nine-year-old son, so we went. He’s a regular theatre goer, our son; we took him to Hamlet when he was not quite four. His review: “Hamlet talks too much when nobody’s listening.” A budding critic. He wasn’t going to be a pushover for kiddie fare.
Me: “So, how did you like it?”
Him: “I want to see it again. It’s maybe the best thing I’ve seen at Stratford ever.”
And you know what? It’s not bad at all. I don’t have much use the new song they gave my character in the 1999 revival (which is the basis for this show), “Beethoven’s Birthday,” but Sally’s song, “My Philosophy” is a hoot. I actually teared up when Charlie Brown (a very approachable Ken James Stewart) rejoiced at finding the chewed-up pencil of the little red-headed girl. “She’s human!” he crowed. And The various ways in which they razzle-dazzled up the show – giving Snoopy a rap number; having his dog house split to reveal a glowing white staircase for “Suppertime;” the “Bye Bye Kitty” handheld computer game he’s continually playing (Stephen Patterson’s show-stopping Snoopy got most of the razzle-dazzle) – all worked, felt true to Snoopy’s showman spirit, and kept the piece from being too horribly dated.
Of course, it is still quite dated. These are a group of kids who operate essentially without adult supervision. They play together unsupervised. They organize a baseball team unsupervised. They write their book reports unsupervised. They live in a world essentially without adults. The Peanuts gang are supposed to be six. I don’t know any ten year olds who live like that anymore.
But it didn’t seem to phase my son. He’s aware of adults, of course – he would never do a book report without a heavy adult hand leaning on him – but it occurred to me that, notwithstanding our (frankly excessive) presence in his life, he still probably perceives the society of his peers as if the adults were absent. When he’s playing with his friends, we are invisible. So maybe that’s why the world of Peanuts didn’t seem quite so foreign as I would have thought.
As for the production, it’s full of energy, but not manic or frenetic. A lot of people have criticized the video backdrops; we were sitting in the front row, and from our seats we barely noticed them. The cast was strong from end to end, but Lucy! She’s not scary – she’s fascinating, easily the most layered of the gang. (It didn’t hurt that Erica Peck bore an alarming resemblance to Katy Perry.)
Does the show have the philosophical depth of the original strip? Well, do we really still think the original strip was quite as deep as all that? Sometimes a piece of popular culture will speak a language that so many recognize that it resonates exceptionally widely. We have all had a football pulled away from us in our lives. Repeatedly. (Though, puzzlingly, not in the show.) And yet we can’t help trying to kick it again. So we all know Charlie Brown. That breadth of connection is not the same thing as depth, though, and we shouldn’t pretend it is.
But it’s something, and not a bad thing. Not bad at all.