Editor’s note: This review won the 2016 Blumey Award for criticism from Blumenthal Performing Arts.
To say I was pleasantly surprised by Arborbrook Christian Academy’s production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” would be an understatement. The set, costumes, choreography, direction and especially the casting yielded high-quality theater. Arborbrook defied the stereotypes associated with a small theater program, producing a show that was both endearing and thought-provoking.
I have seen two other productions of “Charlie Brown” and have often found the show to be ... for lack of a better word, boring. Arborbrook’s performance was anything but that.
Charlie Brown is a tough character to play; the actor has to capture Charlie’s “blahness” while keeping the audience engaged in Charlie’s ups and downs, the struggle to fly his kite and most importantly, his crush on the redheaded girl. Nolan Dunagan executed this task almost perfectly. His gentle comedic timing, combined with his clear, captivating voice, left the audience hanging on every word.
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Other highlights included the leading ladies, who sang effortlessly and with fantastic energy. Ava Smith’s complete commitment to Lucy was evident, from her screech of “You blockhead!” to her hilarious fascination with Schroeder, the uninterested object of her affections.
Libby Hatfield’s Sally reminded me of Kristen Chenoweth’s version; Hatfield’s squeaking voice went with Sally’ sweet innocence, and her dancing was so energetic it was hard to look away. An actor or actress can often have a plastic smile in dance numbers, showing no reaction to what the words say; Hatfield engaged with the audience and stayed true to the spunk of her character.
Most important was the director’s decision to add a silent role for Charles Schulz. Cartoonist Schulz created these characters in the 1950s, intending them to be elementary schoolers who expressed the worries and fears of adults with an innocent outlook on the world around them. He based Charlie Brown’s character on his own feelings, but I have never seen a production attempt to tackle this idea.
These children are facing normal childhood difficulties – a “C” on a project, a kite stuck in a tree, a childhood crush – yet they communicate these feelings in an immensely powerful and relatable way to adult audience members. Instead of being whiny or immature, they express longing, inadequacy, the fear of loneliness and the desire to be loved.
This is how the character of Charles Schulz entered the hearts of the audience without saying a word. In Charlie’s most defining moments, Schulz would rise from his artist’s bench on the left side of the stage and walk over to Charlie. He would set his hand on Charlie’s shoulder or give him an unseen encouraging look, and the audience would be reminded of what “You’re A Good Man” is about: honesty, laughter, love and, most of all, friendship.
While this can sound shallow or clichéd to a reader, it wasn’t to the audience. “Charlie Brown” was an encouragement to remember what truly matters and to find your way back to your childhood. As the cast sang, “Happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.”