Review: CUTC's 'Charlie Brown' sweet but not sappy
The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company's 2014 season springs to life with a production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" that plays like an easy summer day, inviting the audience to sit back and enjoy.
Like the Charles Schulz "Peanuts" comic strip it's based on, the show is charming and disarmingly intelligent.
From a revised script that originated in 1967, the current production remarkably does not feel dated, a testament to Schulz's genius for capturing abiding human truths.
Credit also goes to Clark Gesner for the clever book, music and lyrics.
"Happiness," a song that closes the show, is one I sang at my grammar school graduation in 1969.
Far from sounding stale, the opening-night performance at the Parkland College Theatre was imbued with youthful transcendence and clued me in that this show is an enduring American classic.
The quick action forms around a series of vignettes and even some one-liners that are funny and philosophical. As Charlie Brown says on Valentine's Day, "Nothing echoes like an empty mailbox."
The zippiness reminded me of another product of the late 1960s, the Laugh-In television show.
The costuming, spot-on set design by Evan Forbes, and sunny lighting design by Adam Joseph evoke the iconic comic strip with simple lines and bright colors.
Director Stefanie Senior assembled a cast of six terrific actors who, by the second act, seemed born into their roles and who obviously loved playing together.
Each actor has an opportunity to shine in the spotlight, but they also form a cohesive ensemble.
In costuming, choreography and stage movement, to Senior's credit, there is no over-reaching, which is not to say she plays it all safe.
I especially like the way she occasionally uses the down center lip of the stage, bringing actors close to the audience while adding depth to the staging.
Senior writes in the program that she was aiming for "balance" and she certainly hit her mark.
Music director Timothy Renner conducts the excellent five-piece orchestra who expertly back up the actors with light touches enhancing the playful yet poignant tone of the show.
Renner, a member of the vocal performance department at the University of Illinois, may also deserve credit, along with the performers, for the consistently lovely singing, so obviously vital to the success of a musical.
Charlie Newman, as Charlie Brown, is sweet-voiced and sincere, successfully bringing his character's tender insecurities unabashedly out in the open.
Ray Essick as the Beethoven devotee, Schroeder, gets fully absorbed in his character and brings the audience with him.
A highlight of the production is a duet with his real-life spouse Jenny Gleason, who plays Lucy Van Pelt perfectly and who sings beautifully.
Essick hunches over the low-to-the ground, toy-like piano while Gleason drapes herself longingly over it.
Andrew Lee as Linus the toddler-guru makes us laugh and love him with his number "My Blanket and Me."
Jessica Miller as Sally uses her clear voice and physical gestures with precision bringing sharp definition and comedy to her lively role.
And Meaguell Gaines wins everyone's heart when as Snoopy he joyously sings and dances praises to "Suppertime."
Charles Schultz gave his flat, comic strip characters three dimensions through their words and thoughts.
The musical, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" does them a service by adding song and stage.
The CUTC's ambitious 2014 season is off to an entertaining start.
Adorable without being saccharine, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" has appeal for all ages.
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.