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Wednesday, March 13,2013

Dare to be cuddly

In spite of the heat, Lansing Community College cast reminds us of why 'Charlie Brown' will always be cool

by James Sanford

Thursday, June 21 -- In the same week that Lansing made national headlines with an impromptu  performance of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" comes a show that represents the exact opposite of the theatrical spectrum: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," in which the biggest shock comes from a flash of self-awareness on the part of the moody Lucy, who gasps, "I've done nothing but spread crabbiness everywhere I go -- I'm a super-crab!"  

In a theater world in which artists sometimes go out of their way to be alarming, controversial or provocative, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" dares to be cuddly. The musical opened off-Broadway in 1967, at a time when cartoonist Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" had already crossed over from the comics pages to TV and the Top 40 (perhaps you vaguely recall the Royal Guardsmen's "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" and "Snoopy's Christmas"?) to become a worldwide multimedia phenomenon. To see the Lansing Community College Summer Under the Stars production of "Charlie Brown" is to be instantly transported back to the days when kids still wrote letters to pen-pals instead of instant-messaging, and brothers and sisters actually fought over which TV channel to watch instead of jumping on Hulu, YouTube or Netflix.

But even though it's been more than a decade since the last "Peanuts" strip appeared, the appeal of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder and irrepressible super-beagle Snoopy has never gone out of style, which makes "Charlie Brown" seem delightfully timeless instead of laughably antiquated. (LCC is using the ever-so-slightly updated 1999 script, in which the character of Patty is replaced by Sally, Charlie Brown's spunky little sister.)

The so-called book, credited to the pseudonymous John Gordon, is little more than a collection of brief skits and observations taken almost verbatim from Schulz's work; unlike the "Peanuts" movies and TV specials, there is no actual storyline. Interestingly, "Charlie Brown" shares the same concept as the Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed," which also arrived in 1967: It's simply a chronicle of a single day, beginning at dawn and ending at bedtime. Instead of symphonic pop, however, Charlie Brown and company deliver peppy tunes about the drudgery of doing book reports and the heartbreak of an ill-fated baseball game.

Like Linus' indispensable security blanket, the material may be a bit thin and threadbare in spots, but it's easy to embrace, and there is fun to had in LCC's presentation, which is played out on Bartley H. Bauer's marvelously colorful set that strikingly captures Schulz's style and is bookended by several enlargement of his strips. Director Connie Curran-Oesterle and her capable cast of six also understand the winning strategies for doing outdoor theater: Keep that energy level up, make yourself heard and, above all else, move the show along.  

At the center of "Peanuts" -- and certainly at the core of the musical -- is an inescapable truth: Childhood is challenging. As Charlie Brown (Lucas C. Holliday) puts it, "It's hard on a face when it gets laughed in." Regardless of when you grew up it's difficult not to identify with Charlie Brown's unrequited admiration for that elusive Little Red-Haired Girl, Sally's horror at getting a "C" on her coat-hanger sculpture and the friction between siblings Linus and Lucy. Without going overboard into cutesiness or (pardon the pun) cartoonishness, the actors bring out these emotions sincerely. They're just as adept at capturing the dizzy youthful exuberance that can come from simply being a carefree kid.

That can't be an easy task to pull off in a 95-degree amphitheater, and the opening night show got off to a slightly unsteady start as the performers strained to project their voices and execute lively choreography without sweating up a storm or losing their breath. But if a few notes sounded sour and the harmonies were sometimes ragged in this first performance, no harm done. Let's face it, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" is not exactly "Carousel" or "The Phantom of the Opera." It's unlikely any aspiring musical comedy star ever pulled out one of Clark Gesner's songs to use as an audition piece; although they're sweet and sometimes mildly funny (particularly Lucy's "Little Known Facts"), they're more hummable than truly memorable. Only Snoopy's "Suppertime," with its Vince Guaraldi-esque jazz touches, has any real pizzazz, and Devin Faught turns it into a show-stopper with his enthusiastic delivery. Who knew Snoopy could do flawless back-flips
?

‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’
Through Sunday, June 24
Lansing Community College Summer Stage Under the Stars in the amphitheater (rain location is Dart Auditorium)
8 p.m. nightly
Free

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