YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN at Mainstage Center for the Arts: What’s Not to Love?

by Jack Shaw

Mainstage Center for the Arts put on YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN as a 3-show benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at Camden Community College in Blackwood, NJ. CHARLIE BROWN has always been a family crowd pleaser, and it was here, too, on beautiful Spring day. Today was the day I saw CHARLIE BROWN again, and the “kid” never gets old.

Clockwise from top left: James Cristiano of Philadelphia, PA (Linus); Don Rider of West Chester, PA (Charlie Brown); Erin Waldie of Ridley Township, PA (Lucy); Billy Hart of New York, NY (Schroeder); and Kevin Hurley of Gloucester Township, NJ (Snoopy) portrayed the "Peanuts" gang in Mainstage Center for the Arts' production of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN.

The “big” kids on stage were pretty awesome, too. There’s more to this story than a great show.

All on stage are professional actors now, and all but one of those “kids” had been on this particular stage before.

Director Billy Hart’s plan had been to use former Mainstage actors who had turned professional in the cast to do this benefit. Ironically, many of the originally cast members were equity actors, and Equity usually doesn’t allow its actors to perform in non-equity houses. Equity made an exception here for the cause. Hart was still able to put together a terrific cast, including Kevin Hurley as “Snoopy,” James Cristiano as “Linus van Pelt,” Kelly Karcher as “Sally Brown,” Erin Waldie as “Lucy van Pelt,” and Don Rider as “Charlie Brown.” Hart, in addition to directing, also played “Schroeder.”

The production’s timing was brisk, enough to keep the little ones happily nailed to their seats, and the play moved from scene to scene seamlessly. The music and songs were great, as was the choreography. The cast was made up of fine actors with incredible talent and energy, as well as singing voices perfectly suited to the roles they played. It was truly a terrifically fun experience.

It’s a show I’ve seen several times, performed by high school, community and professional theatre. Every show is different; that is the beauty of theatre, with each cast member giving his or her part something a little different. Let me say, first I enjoyed the show immensely, but I have some nitpicking to do.

As a performance critic, I always say never nitpick unless the “nitpick” affected the show you expected to see. And, it did here, but easy fixes, I hope you agree.

James Cristiano (Linus) and Erin Waldie (Lucy) fought for Linus' blanket in MCA's YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, which was performed at the Dennis Flyer Theatre, Lincoln Hall, Camden County College. MCA's next production will be 13, THE MUSICAL on June 24 and 25.

What didn’t work for me was the difference I heard in the character acting and the same character singing. While it wasn’t so noticeable in the boys, it was in the girls. The boys played roles as adults playing children speaking as adults, while girls played little girls with little girl voices and big childlike gestures.

I start with the play’s intentions. To frame my explanation, I’ll use the late Charles Schultz humor and the wonderful music and lyrics of Clark Gesner and additional lyrics from Andrew Lippa. These elements, of course, make the show what it is. The actors in CHARLIE BROWN are, usually adults, playing children, but using adult-like characterizations about their present life as a child. I know it’s confusing, but if you’ve read the comic or saw the TV specials, you know exactly what I mean. The result: a childlike truth we can all relate to.

I think this may have occurred because of the strong outward behavior traits associated with the Charles Schultz characters. There is naturally the need for Lucy to be grouchy and Sally to be younger, but there was no need to really play with the voice in my opinion. This caused a dissonance that distracted from overall tone of the show–the Charles Schultz humor. Less would have worked well for Lucy; she doesn’t have to be “big” all the time. I see her exploding at times–just not all the time. Sally’s voice was almost grating after a time, I wanted her to stop acting and start singing. Her “New Philosophy” song was the best I’ve ever heard.

Both girls sang beautifully, but the sound was so different from their character voices it was disconcerting. When I heard Kelly Karcher speak in her regular voice at the end of the show, I knew that voice would have made a fine Sally. Keep the childlike movements to make her young and use the real voice. Probably the same could be said for Lucy, but there were times when she did calm her character down and it was perfect. I’d say find the moments where Lucy explodes; her character will have more impact when she does. And, Sally’s regular voice was so much more appealing than her character voice. Sally should be an endearing character, but whatever the voice, I prefer something in synch with the other actors on the stage. Consistency makes a good show, great and a great show, awesome.

Kevin Hurley (Snoopy), Erin Waldie (Lucy), Billy Hart (Schroeder), Kelly Karcher (Sally), and James Crisitiano (Linus) declare Charlie Brown a "good man" in Mainstage Center for the Arts production of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN at Camden County College's Dennis Flyer Theatre.

Overall, still a great show. The audience loved it.

As a reviewer, the nitpicks are mine alone. I take reviewing seriously–so seriously I want a show to be its best. I don’t expect it to be perfect, but I want it to work as its creators intended it so I feel my “nits” are on the warranted side.

Don Rider was the perfect “Charlie Brown.” I will forever be seeing your face when I think of the play. Don’t worry, I’m sure the stereotype won’t last. Kevin Hurley’s “Snoopy” wove his way easily into the audience’s hearts, as he played a hot dog with relish–not just any dog, of course. Billy Hart’s “Schroeder” was incredible, too, and we felt for his plight fighting off Lucy’s manufactured love. James Cristiano’s “Linus” was precious. What else can you say to a man who is sucking his thumb and holding a blankie? You made me believe. Ladies, I’ve never heard sweeter voices in song in this show. I mean that sincerely.

This was a cast to make you believe the magic of theatre to transform a comic character into a real life comedy. My family and I will remember the experience for a long time and thank you for bringing it to us.

Based on the Comic Strip “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Clark M. Gesner
Directed by Billy Hart
April 29 – May 1, 2011
Mainstage Center for the Arts
at Dennis Flyer Theatre
Camden County College
Office: 856-232-1012
Tickets: 856-227-3091
Blackwood, NJ

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