By Colin Douglas
Most theatres are reopening, and just in time for the holidays. Many of them are either revisiting the shows that were in production when the shutdown came, or they’re presenting a Christmas or Hanukkah favorite. But Citadel has gone a different route, and it’s a wise and wonderful choice. This delightful family musical portrays a typical day in the life of Charles Schulz‘s immortal Charlie Brown, with friends like Snoopy, Lucy, Schroeder, Linus and Sally in tow. It’s an inspired alternative holiday offering in a perfect, absolutely pleasurable production.
For a musical that’s become such a popular show with educational, community and small professional theatres, Clark Gesner’s tribute to the Peanuts comic strip characters had a very modest beginning. In 1966, Gesner wrote and recorded a series of songs based on the Peanuts characters. A producer urged the composer to turn these songs into concept album and, eventually, into a musical. The show, which opened Off-Broadway in 1967, went on to play for four years. The original libretto was a charmingly simple collection of songs and short vignettes.
But in 1998, the musical was revised. New dialogue and songs were added, the score was expanded and orchestrations were updated, and Charlie Brown’s sassy little sister Sally replaced the original character of Patty. After a short national tour, the show opened on Broadway the following year. It won two Tony Awards and made actress Kristin Chenoweth, who created the role of Sally, a star.
Citadel’s production is simple and sweet. The production, which features many inventive, comic touches, is smartly directed by popular Chicagoland actor/director Joe Lehman. Clark Gesner’s enchanting score has been recreated by music director David Zizic, along with Kyle Gentile on percussion, Eric Von Holst on bass and Kedgrick Pullums on reeds. Jake Ganzer’s choreography is entertaining, without being too challenging for the cast. One particularly innovative move involves having Sally and Schroeder not only sing but tap dance their way through “My New Philosophy.” Delightful!
The cast is terrific. Neil Stratman is one of the best Charlie Brown’s I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. This talented young man has an incredible voice and makes every note count in songs like “The Kite,” “T-E-A-M (The Baseball Game),” and the clever ode to homework, “The Book Report.” Neil is a comic genius and so likable you wonder why he consistently gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. But far from being a blockhead, Mr. Stratman is the star of this production.
Another standout in this production, as he was in Citadel’s production of Annie, is the brilliant Jimmy Hogan. Playing Schroeder with so much enthusiasm and overflowing with musical and comic talent, Mr. Hogan is excellent in this role. His effervescence enchants the audience in every song and scene, especially leading the company production number of “Beethoven Day.” The frustration his character experiences in “The Glee Club,” trying desperately to rehearse a song for an upcoming school performance, can be felt by anyone who has ever tried to work with a group of highly distracted individuals.
As Lucy, Sierra White positively sparkles, despite what their Crabbiness Survey revealed. This talented actor creates an hilarious Lucy Van Pelt who’s full of acid and attitude, but who can pout like Bette Davis, belt like an opera diva and skillfully deliver comedy, like a professional. Whether mooning over their musician sweetheart in “Schroeder,” teaching their little brother about the world in “Little Known Facts” or administering psychological advice for a nickel in “The Doctor is In,” this actor is everything that Charles Schulz envisioned.
Rounding out this capable cast is the hilarious Tuesdai B. Perry, as a snappy, sardonic Snoopy. Her “Red Baron” scene is a fantastic opening to Act II, and Ms Perry’s raucous rendition of “Suppertime,” which turned into a Busby Berkeley-style production number, is one of the highlights of this terrific show. Alley Ellis is a sublime Sally Brown, although playing the character a little younger might’ve added to the comedy of her scenes. She dazzles, however, when trying to decide her “New Philosophy.” And as Linus, Marcellus Burt brings a certain intellectual innocence to his role. Sometimes the young actor swallows his words, making him difficult to understand and the jokes impossible to land. But Mr. Burt stands out in his scenes with Lucy, as well as in his Fred Astaire-inspired “My Blanket and Me.”
The production is enhanced by a gifted crew of technical theatre artists. Eric Luchen’s deceptively simple, but brilliantly colorful scenic design is quite wonderful. He’s joined forces with Samuel Stephen’s flashy lighting design that brings texture and movement to the set. Colin Bradley Meyer’s creative, contemporary take on the familiar Peanuts costumes is inspired and Jonathan Berg-Einhorn’s delightfully whimsical, two-dimensional props bring smiles to everyone.
This bright, beautifully acted and professionally produced family production, helmed by innovative Director Joe Lehman, features a stellar cast of talented, young triple threats. Like it’s finale, this musical is pure “Happiness.” It’s a show that’s guaranteed to bring miles of smiles and lots of laughter to the young, as well as the young-at-heart. Charlie Brown and his gang offer the perfect alternative to the typical holiday fare available across Chicagoland. If you miss this magical musical you’ll be sorry, because everyone is going to be raving about You’re a Good Man Man, Charlie Brown.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs through December 23 at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 847.735.8554 or by going to www.citadeltheatre.org.
Photos by North Shore Camera Club.