Theater review: Happiness is Watching ‘Charlie Brown’ at NCT

NCT-CharlieBrownWe are reminded in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown that happiness is “anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.” Nashville Children’s Theatre creates that happiness with their revival of the sweet-natured musical.

The “Peanuts” gang has been going strong since the late Charles M. Schulz introduced them in a 1950 comic strip. Animated TV specials and feature films have delighted children of all ages before and after the strip ended its original run in 2000.

The musical (with music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, who first created a concept album of Peanuts-related songs) got its start Off-Broadway in 1967 with a cast that included Gary Burghoff (“Radar” O’Reilly in the film and TV versions of M*A*S*H) as Charlie Brown and Bob Balaban (most recently in Moonrise Kingdom) as Linus. The popular characters, along with the show’s small cast and simple staging demands, made it a programming favorite among community and school theaters thereafter.

A 1999 Broadway revival (there was a short Broadway run in 1971) saw some changes to the musical that included bringing the lovable blockhead’s little sister Sally into the mix. Kristin Chenoweth won a Tony for that part while Roger Bart (The Producers, “Desperate Housewives”) copped the prize for playing Snoopy in a cast that also included Anthony Rapp (Rent) in the title role with B.D. Wong (M. Butterfly) as Linus.

Some prominent pros are featured in NCT’s staging – Shawn Knight as Charlie Brown, Rona Carter as Lucy, Bobby Wyckoff as Linus, Martha Wilkinson as Sally, Patrick Waller as Schroeder and Jeff Boyet as Snoopy. Each has drawn plenty of well-deserved praise for their efforts in plays and musicals over the years, and the quality of their work is high in this show too, whether together in such numbers as “T-E-A-M (The Baseball Game)” or apart.

Knight, for example, captures the wistful hopes of his forlorn character in his rendition of “The Kite”; Carter displays Lucy’s mixture of confidence and obstinacy when she sings of her feelings for “Schroeder”; the object of Lucy’s unrequited love is infectiously exuberant in “Beethoven Day” thanks to the energy and talent of Waller; and Wyckoff’s “My Blanket and Me” is a delightful romp thanks in large part to his impeccable timing.

And what about the actors that play Sally and Snoopy? Wilkinson, complete with lisp and little-girl walk, is a hoot, and her take on “My New Philosophy” is terrific. And Boyet, whether fighting the Red Baron or singing his character’s signature “Suppertime” song, is so funny and endearing that one young audience member at Thursday’s preview performance wondered aloud how Boyet might get down safely from the top of his large doghouse.

That scaled-to-fit doghouse is one of the lovely elements in Michael Redman’s simple and effective scenic design, which even includes a curtain resembling Charlie Brown’s famous shirt. Scott Leathers’ lights add a strong dose of charm, and Patricia Taber’s costumes are picture-perfect.

Carter provides some joyful choreography from the opening number forward in addition to her work as Lucy. Music Director Russell Davis and fellow musician Kevin Madill play the score with nimble and lively fingering of the keyboards.

Happiness is indeed many things, including first-rate Nashville Children’s Theatre presentations like the one now gracing the Ann Stahlman Hill Theatre stage. If their version of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown doesn’t bring a smile to your face nothing will.

NCT 2012-2013You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown continues through Dec. 23 at Nashville Children’s Theatre (25 Middleton St.). Family performances are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with the exception of Sunday, Nov. 4, when there is no performance, and the 14th Annual Grand Day on Saturday, Nov. 17 which this year honors Sen. and Mrs. Douglas Henry. A free “After-words” talkback follows the Saturday, Nov. 10 show; the Saturday, Dec. 1 show is open-captioned for those with hearing loss while a special 11 a.m. performance Saturday, Nov. 24 is sensory friendly (designed to be a safe and accepting environment where children with disabilities and their typically developing peers are free to speak and move in reaction to the story being told onstage.). Grand Day admission is $40 for all-access in advance or $19 adults and $12 seniors/children for the show-only with carnival tickets available for $1 each (full carnival access onsite that day is $30). There’s also a 21-and-up Big Kid Night on Friday, Nov. 9 is $25 (beverages, snacks and show included) with Yazoo Brewing Co. at 5:30 p.m. and show an hour later. Tickets for those events and other family performances ($19; $12 for ages 2-17 and seniors age 65 and older) can be purchased by calling (615) 252-4675 or at nashvillect.org.


*Photo of (L to R) Shawn Knight as Charlie Brown and Jeff Boyet as Snoopy by Colin Peterson courtesy Nashville Children’s Theatre.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).