Director-conductor Colin Keating made a smashing local debut with his handling of the beguiling pocket musical A Year With Frog and Toad last spring at Appleseed Productions. Well-remembered at nomination time for the upcoming Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards, Frog and Toad was a sly study in contrasts, nominally for children, which some reviewers compared to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip.
A year later Keating is back in the dual role of director and music conductor for Clark Gesner’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a co-production between Not Another Theater Company and the Syracuse New Times at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater. But instead of the over-sweet, done-to-death 1967 original, Keating has opted for Andrew Lippa’s wittier, more acerbic 1999 rewrite. His is a Peanuts with more salt.
Interest in Peanuts characters has never flagged. Schulz might be dead 12 years, but we know more about him now than we did when he was alive. With the publication of David Michaelis’ 2007 book Schulz and Peanuts, hated by the family, two dirty secrets are out. Lucy is conceptually, not visually, based on the cartoonist’s first wife, a marriage that ended in divorce (surprise!). And Schulz increasingly projected himself onto Snoopy. The confident mature man identified with the aspiring beagle, even though he could never shed the hapless, put-upon and rejected boy. Visually, the cartoon character might have been based on an actual art student named Charles Brown, but it was the young Schulz who could not kick the ball. The strip, like this show, did not remain static.
Probably none of this was known to Lippa (John & Jen, The Wild Party, The Addams Family) in rewriting the show, but he might as well have intuited it. He drops Gesner’s unison voices in the original, like a grade school musical, and introduces multi-part harmony. Lots of worn-out lines, the ones people used to put on refrigerators with magnets, have been thrown away. The bouncy, hip “Opening/You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” points to a new direction.
Then there’s Charlie’s likewise new-to-this-musical sister Sally, a replacement for an original Schulz character named Patty, but not to be confused with Peppermint Patty. Sally was written for the distinctive presence of Kristin Chenoweth, who’s about 90 pounds of blonde dynamite. As played here by Briana Duger (a veteran of Frog and Toad), Sally strides around the stage like a gymnast who might at any moment take flight under her own power. Her show-stopping number, “My New Philosophy,” has enough verbal wit to conjure up the rebirth of Cole Porter. And Sally gets the zingers: “I was just jumping rope—and suddenly it all seemed so futile.”
Keating’s major innovation in this production is to cast a soprano as Snoopy. Ceara Windhausen, who looks to be of college age, is known locally for two musical satires about substance abuse: last summer’s Not Another Theater Company production of Reefer Madness and Baldwinsville Theatre Guild’s The Drunkard earlier this spring. To get into character, Keating has Windhausen sport puppydogs’ tails from beneath her baseball cap. The gender switcheroo pays the biggest dividends in the jazzy number “Suppertime,” and Windhausen always makes Snoopy a presence. Then again, Snoopy’s vibrancy means the dog can’t pull back to indifferent nonchalance, a la the sunglasses-wearing Joe Cool.
As ever-crabby Lucy Van Pelt, Krystal Scott (last seen in the Redhouse’s Batboy) has her share of musical numbers, like the hilarious “Schroeder,” sung to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” or leading “Little Known Facts.” But more than other players, much of her success depends on her unfailing comic delivery, as in her lust to become a queen. Lucy might already be the best-known female bully in pop culture, but Scott’s black-browed scowl really makes her look dangerous.
Both Justin Polly (Linus) and Alex Cupelo (Schroeder) are more widely known, often through roles with Dustin Czarny’s Not Another Theater Company. While they are both very sharp in the comic exchanges throughout, especially Polly in the solo “My Blanket and Me,” both get their best moments in successive big numbers before the first act’s curtain. For Polly it’s the riff on the Fifth Symphony (“da-da-da-dum”) in “Beethoven Day.” And for Cupelo it’s leading the ensemble in the complex, fugue-filled “The Book Report.”
Devon Simmons takes on the leading role of Charlie Brown, who is slapped on the back by everyone at the end and called a “good man.” Simmons brings the right vocal tubes for big musical numbers like “The Kite” and “T-E-A-M,” as well as more than his share of duets. Yet the hapless Charlie Brown of popular culture is a well of deep pathos, constantly facing rejection and disappointment. Under Keating’s direction, Simmons makes him ingratiating, nurturing hopes of making a breakthrough, like a door-to-door brush salesman who thinks he could make the sale with a better smile. This feels like the wrong tone. But if we are finding fault with Charlie Brown, it might mean he’s doing something right.
As a conductor, Keating has assembled five pit players, including two Frog and Toad alums. His string player Maggie Mercer shifts from violin and viola for different moods, while Lindsey Gerber shuttles between different woodwind instruments. Choreographer Stephfond Brunson keeps the cast on the move in several of the bigger numbers, and set and lighting designer Meghan Pearson brings alive the original Schulz faces and colors.
Charlie, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder and Snoopy have been daily presences
in American life for more than 60 years. With crisp direction and sharp
delivery as welcome hallmarks of this production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, these characters are renewed and refreshed. They may be icons but not stale clichés.
This production runs through May 26. See Times Table for information.