Reviewed by Nan Lincoln
Special to The Islander
BLUE HILL — Some 50 years ago, Bill Raiten, a young man who had recently arrived in Maine from New York City, launched a production of the new musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Revised)” at Ellsworth High School.
Raiten went on to create the New Surry Theatre, which has for the last half century brought excellent theatrical fare to a variety of theaters, schools and halls throughout the state, but most notably at NST’s home – the Blue Hill Town Hall Theater.
Lori Sitzabee, who several years ago assumed the mantle of artistic director of NST, swears she didn’t know when she chose this charming little play as the spring musical that it was such a milestone in the history of her company. She acknowledges now how apt it is both as an homage to the past and as a new beginning of sorts as NST, along with other theater companies here and around the world, reopen to live audiences.
With Sitzabee and Jennifer Adams sharing musical and stage direction duties, respectively, the NST production of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (Revised)” is the perfect brief escape from the doldrums of mud season in Maine or the horrific news of the world.
In the cast bios, Paul Allen, the NST newbie who plays the title role, writes that it has long been a dream of his to play Charlie Brown. Well, yeah! With his sweet, yet powerful voice and expressive face, and body language, Allen brings all the necessary awkwardness, angst and lovability to Charles Schulz’s beloved comic strip character, and then some.
From the moment we meet him – waking up to a new day, filled with optimism and hope that it’s going to a be good one for him, despite ample evidence and personal history to the contrary – we fall in love with the nebbishy little kid in the zigzag shirt. And when he talks about his yearning love for “the little red-haired girl” and sings about, kite flying, team building, personality flaws … well anything, he melts your heart.
While Allen’s Charlie Brown is the soft, gooey heart of this show, he’s surrounded by a passel of scene-stealers. Kate Hall as Lucy Van Pelt is hilarious and appropriately commands the stage whenever she appears. Whether she’s stomping about pontificating fake facts to her little brother Linus or singing, in a strong, tuneful voice that skirts the edge of shrill without ever tipping over it; draped over Schroeder’s piano wondering if he could take a break from Beethoven and maybe play a little “Frere Jacques” for a change; informing Charlie Brown exactly what his problem is; or just standing there like a prickly little thorn bush, limbs outstretched, fingers splayed declaring herself queen of all she surveys, her Lucy is a delight to behold.
I am so glad NST chose the revised version of the play to do, which includes a couple of additional songs, most notably a clever, jazzy, scene stealing solo, “My New Philosophy,” for Charlie’s pugnacious little sister Sally, wonderfully sung and danced by Madelyn Woods.
Mae Schultz, who at age 10 is the only actual child in the show, also steals a few scenes as Snoopy dreaming of being a WWI flying ace, chasing rabbits, howling at the moon or simply celebrating supper. While Schultz’s clear, perfectly pitched soprano, especially in her opening song “Snoopy,” is enchanting, it is also still a delicate voice, and the fabulous pit band needs to turn the volume down a tad for it.
As Linus, Jonathan Wood, like the comic strip character, is both precociously wise and a thumb-sucking, blanket-hugging, adorable bundle of insecurity. And if Patrick Harris as Schroeder sometimes loses the pitch when he sings, his projection is impressive as is his clear exasperation with Lucy’s unwelcome attentions.
One of the most fun numbers in the show, “Book Report,” serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the characters of Charlie, Lucy, Schroeder and Linus.
Lucy, contending with a 100-word minimum, simply fills space with nonsense to make the count, Schroeder is clearly more interested in writing about Robin Hood, Linus seems to be working on a Ph.D. involving Peter Rabbit’s psychological profile and Charlie, ah poor Charlie, is so paralyzed by his fear of failure he can’t get started at all.
Randall Simmons’ costuming and cartoony set design is spot-on – loved Lucy and Sally’s frocks, although I must add it bugged me that Linus’s security blanket is navy when everyone knows it’s supposed to be light blue. Good grief!
The pit band directed by Sitzabee with the likes of such pros as Steve Orlofsky, Scott Cleveland, Phil Kell and Tom Rush is so good they could go on tour if they wanted. They just need to be mindful not to drown out the puppy.
This was opening night so along with the special energy of that occasion, it came with a few glitches (a falling cloud, lost kite string, some missed sound cues) and timing issues, none of which can’t be ironed out in the coming two weekends of performances. When the Peanuts gang gathered to sing the finale, “Happiness Is,” with its catalog of delights, I couldn’t help adding to myself as I took in the theater, the audience, the lighted stage – “This. Happiness is this.”
Performances of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (Revised)” are at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, March 18-19, and March 25-26 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 20. Tickets cost $30 per person and $25 per person for seniors and students. To reserve seats, go to www.newsurrytheatre.org.