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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Theatre For Thought, April 14, 2012

joel fishbane
Years ago a friend who shall remain nameless (hint: she’s part of the current cast of CMT’s The Singing Bee) gave me the script to You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown as a birthday present. At the time, we were all flouncing through musical theatre school and I had developed a habit of mining the show for material: I sang three of the songs and did one of Charlie Brown’s monologues in acting class. At the time, everyone - except my nameless friend - rolled their eyes. “You’re wasting your time,” they said. “Everything about that show is best left forgotten.”
Flash forward a quarter of a lifetime and we find ourselves in the midst of the Charlie Brown resurgence – it’s both a feature of ATP’s 2012-13 season and opens at Stratford on May 15th. It enjoyed a Broadway revival in 1999 and since then has had dozens of international productions. For all this, the show still has its share of detractors – the Globe and Mail dubbed it the “least anticipated show of 2012” and critics have long been divided on whether the show is a “miracle” (the Village Voice, circa 1967) or “the stuff of actor’s nightmares” (the NY Times, circa 1999). 
there are two different versions floating around and I’d suggest this is the thing that tends to divide the critics

For those not in the know, You’re a Good Man…  follows a typical day in the life of its eponymous hero, a lovable schoolyard loser. There’s no plot and none of the actors are actually schoolkids – they’re simply wide-eyed adults playing at being kids. From a producer’s standpoint, the appeal is obvious. The cast is small and the orchestra is minimal. It’s a family show meaning that people old enough to be nostalgic for Charlie Brown – generally anyone 30 and up – can safely drag their children and grandchildren along, thereby introducing theatre to a whole new generation. 
One thing that always has to be made clear when discussing the show, though, is that there are two different versions floating around and I’d suggest this is the thing that tends to divide the critics. People rarely advertise which version they’re performing, but thanks to copyright law, the byline never lies. If the byline reads “Book, Music and Lyrics by Clark Gesner” then it’s the version that played off-Broadway in 1967; but if it also reads “Additional Material by Andrew Lippa”, then it’s the version that played Broadway in 1999. 
The changes shift the focus of the show away from our hero and transform the show into an ensemble piece.

It’s the latter version that’s being performed at Stratford and ATP and though the differences are minor, they are nonetheless distinct. Certain scenes were cut, added or otherwise amended and the character of Patty was replaced by Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister. Two songs were added to fatten the score, one of which, presumably, was to capitalize on the fact that in 1999 Sally was played by the insanely talented Kristen Chenoweth (later to gain fame in Wicked). 
The changes shift the focus of the show away from our hero and transform the show into an ensemble piece. Rather then present a show that is essentially about Charlie Brown, the Revised version is a play about Charlie Brown and his Friends. For me, this muddies the waters. For all its plotlessness, the original version still managed to convey a small emotional journey for Charlie Brown: he goes from not wanting to wake up in the morning to not being so afraid to wake up the following day. It doesn’t seem like much but then this is a story about childhood and how the smallest moments (suppertime, a book report, a baseball game) all feel momentous. The Revised version loses some of this simplicity and while it’s still a fine show, I’m not entirely convinced it succeeds in being as engaging as the original.
Nonetheless, I’m still going to encourage everyone to jump on the Charlie Brown bandwagon. The score is a delight and the script perfectly captures the whimsy of Charles Schultz’s original comic. In the end, the show is one about the wonder of childhood, something which most of us tend to lose as we age; if nothing else, it takes us back to a time when we could be inspired by the knowledge that a girl we love must be human because she chews her pencil. Oh and there’s a talking dog. And we definitely don’t have enough of them.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown! runs at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival from May 15 – October 28, 2012. It will also appear at Alberta Theatre Projects from Novembr 21 – December 30, 2012. 

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