By Barry Reszel
It was December 9, 1965, when cartoonist Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” gang first began to weave its way into the American Christmastime fabric.
The low-budget, animated, A Charlie Brown Christmas, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was written over a few weeks, cast with the voices of child actors and expected to be a commercial flop.
Instead, it received high ratings, has been honored with Emmy and Peabody awards, became an annual broadcast every year since its premiere and has seen its jazz soundtrack sell four million copies in the United States alone. Revelers of Christmas consider the half-hour cartoon a staple of the season.
The well-known story centers on melancholy Charlie Brown searching for joy at the onset of the cheerful holiday season. Lucy sets him up as the director of the annual Christmas pageant, but he is largely ignored and ridiculed. As Charlie searches for Christmas’ true meaning above society’s over-commercialization and secularism, the story’s climax come when friend Linus delivers his Biblical monologue:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
In Chicago this year, Emerald City Theatre and Broadway in Chicago team to produce a truly delightful live stage rendition of this yuletide icon. It may be the perfect introduction of live theatre to children and perhaps the only production where the squeals and comments from young audience members enhance the experience.
Clocking at a perfectly paced 57 minutes (including post-show sing-along), Director/Choreographer Ann Filmer‘s Charlie Brown Christmas leaves nothing out. She swiftly moves her talented cast from a lovely opening skate choreography through the holiday examination audiences have loved for more than 50 years.
The show is terrifically cast, with Jason Groff as a tenderly believable Charlie Brown, Veronica Garza as a purposefully annoying Lucy, Jesse Dornan as the perfect Snoopy and Daniel Kyri as Linus, whose delivery of show’s most important monologue is sincere and sweet. Music Director Alex Benjamin leads the onstage jazz combo as Schroeder.
Joe Shermoly‘s sets are vibrant and functional, important because the space is shared with other productions during the holiday season. Izumi Inaba‘s costumes are spot-on.
While the only fully sung song is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” at show’s closing, there’s plenty of music and excellent choreography. On stage at Chicago’s Water Tower Place’s Broadway Playhouse, this production is the perfect exclamation point to a day of family holiday celebration.
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!
Emerald City Theatre and Broadway in Chicago present “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago, through January 8, 2017. More information and tickets are available online here.