Charles Schulz' "Peanuts" comic strip evokes a wry smile, not a belly laugh. His wit is downbeat, subtle and quiet. Part of the humor is the built-in double take. The characters, except for the dog and the bird, are children. But they are childish in a very adult way: obsessive, neurotic, aware of their own follies but unable to escape them.
Schulz is, in fact, in a long line of satirists who make us look at our own foibles by projecting them onto animals or little people.
Charlie Brown and Snoopy may not have read Aesop's Fables or "Gulliver's Travels," but their creator clearly has.
If you want to put "Peanuts" on stage, then, the big problem is how to preserve this crucial but elusive satiric dimension. Without it, there is a huge risk of becoming cutesy and twee.
Sadly, Clark Gesner's musical revival of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," which bowed at the Ambassador last night, never even begins to engage with these basic difficulties. Ironically, it manages to be more two-dimensional than the comic strip.
As Julie Taymor showed with "The Lion King," it is possible to translate a cartoon into a Broadway musical. But only if you invent a whole new world around the old characters.
There is, for this Broadway version, some attempt to re-invent Gesner's 1967 Off-Broadway musical.
There are two new songs by Andrew Lippa. One of them, "My New Philosophy," written for the new character Sally, is smarter than any of Gesner's remaining numbers.
Lippa's new arrangements for many of the old numbers are lively and inject some badly needed variety into the score.
Almost half of the sketches are new, incorporating material from the last 30 years of "Peanuts." And designer David Gallo has created a vivid theatrical version of Schulz' dreamy visual landscape.
But these changes just don't go far enough. They fail to answer the basic questions. What story are they telling? And how do you get the double take of children who are really scaled-down adults?
The musical doesn't really have a book. It strings dozens of sketches together, with only the loose shape of a single day to create any sense of a coherent form. For a while, the rapid-fire style is amusing, but without a story to sustain interest, it runs out of steam.
Nor does director Michael Mayer manage to make any really interesting use of his main theatrical device: the fact that the kids (and the dog) are being played by adults.
The actors, especially Roger Bart (Snoopy), Kristin Chenoweth (Sally) and B.D. Wong (Linus) are extremely talented. They create smart, skillful and precise impersonations of Schulz' characters.
But because there's nothing else going on, they are flatter than their cartoon originals.
The result is a pleasant but utterly disposable show. No grief, but also no good.
They’re so mythical by now, so familiar, that they're like characters we've met in dreams. Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts gang is as deeply ingrained in the American psyche as Mark Twain's Huck and Tom, or L. Frank Baum's Dorothy.
The danger, of course, with the familiar is staleness. The happy news today is that Michael Mayer's revival/revision of the 1967 musical review ''You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown'' makes the lovable sextet as spanking bright as if they were born yesterday. This is a show that rejoices in loud colors and loud emotions; Charlie Brown wears an orange shirt with a wacky black zigzag across the chest; Lucy's in blue down to her blue socks and white shoes; Sally (an added character, who's Charlie Brown's cocksure little sister) goes in for pink and polka dots; Snoopy sports goggles and an ace-pilot's scarf frozen in midair; Linus has black stripes on red and a pale blue blanket; eye-burning blues and yellows dominate the backgrounds. The genius of this ''Charlie Brown'' is to express with an easy harmony both childish longing and adult disappointment.
A succession of straight sketches and songs, the musical has a faint wisp of a book that follows the six tykes through a day (or many days), and ends up with them all in pajamas, summing up their acquired wisdom in the song ''Happiness.'' The original, with music, book and lyrics by Clark Gesner, had 42 sketches, about half of which have been replaced with newly adapted Schulz material. Two new songs have been added. One is ''Beethoven Day,'' a protest by the fanatically devoted Schroeder against the commercialization of his idol's birthday; the second, ''My New Philosophy,'' is a hilarious, razzmatazz number for Sally, who, as played by the big-voiced, peppery little spitfire Kristin Chenoweth, all but steals the second act.
It's this show's spirit, more than the music, that shines. As he did with the brilliant ''Stupid Kids,'' Mayer presents highly energized vignettes of youth in turmoil. Charlie himself is the eternal loser who can't get the peanut butter off the roof of his mouth, can't say hello to the red-headed girl in class. When he gives Lucy a Valentine, he says, ''Merry Christmas.'' Anthony Rapp, who was the angry filmmaker in ''Rent,'' gives us a Charlie with perpetually hunched shoulders, a dopey Nero haircut, and sad, desperately staring eyes. It's at once a caricature and a capturing of real pain - a strong performance that holds the show together. Tall Ilana Levine pushes Lucy's self-ignorance, crabbiness and arrogance to the brink of obnoxiousness, but this is right; it gives an edge to and cuts the sweetness of the rest. As her blanket-clutching, big-word-using brother, Linus, B.D. Wong projects a winningly silly wisdom. His sister-softening reconciliation with Lucy gets everybody teared up. Roger Bart, with professional aplomb, socks across Snoopy's Red Baron fantasy; even better is his turn in ''Suppertime'' as a shades-wearing hipster tossing a dinner bowl in air. Stanley Wayne Mathis brings passion to both Schroeder's love of Beethoven and his avoidance of the smitten Lucy.
The production hits an occasional false note, but mainly it keeps a miraculous and moving balance between joy and pathos, the so-called infantile and the so-called adult. Like Schulz himself, it blends the two ages together in a lovely, weird mix.
Sally Brown is mad at the world, and if the world has any sense at all, it will stay out of her way. Though still on the fair side of 5, Sally has a highly developed sense of the injustice and futility of life. Her indignation quotient is off the charts, and her mighty bleat of a voice could bring down the walls of Jericho. She is not, perhaps, a child you would want to shepherd through an afternoon at the mall, but on a Broadway stage, she is invaluable company.
Sally Brown is portrayed by a small but definitely adult actress named Kristin Chenoweth, who is giving one of those break-out performances that send careers skyward in the revival of ''You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'' which opened last night at the Ambassador Theater. She is also the only significant reason for adults unaccompanied by children to sit through this mild-mannered, sticky evening of skits and songs inspired by Charles M. Schulz's long-running ''Peanuts'' comic strip.
You see, Ms. Chenoweth, playing someone who wasn't even a character in the original Off Broadway hit of the late 1960's, is terrifically appealing, but her Sally is simply too strident, too angry, too agitated to ever be considered merely cute. (Considering she wears a mop of Shirley Temple curls, this is an accomplishment.)
A lack of conventional cuteness was what allowed Mr. Schulz's dot-eyed, round-headed creatures to conquer America in the 1950's. Admittedly, a comic strip that features a dog who fantasizes about being a World War I flying ace can be long on whimsy. But Mr. Schulz also cannily created a world of children shaped by an age of anxiety. The atomic bomb, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were not usual topics of conversation in ''Peanuts,'' but depression, rejection, sour stomachs and the meaninglessness of existence were.
Charlie Brown, the ultimate loser, the boy who never received a Valentine or won a Little League baseball game, spoke directly to the nagging fears and self-doubts that many adults were beginning to realize they would never outgrow. Yet he and his friends never seemed just like grown-ups in kids' clothing. They were deliciously sui generis figures in a self-contained universe. Translating them from pen and ink drawings into flesh and blood performances would seem to be impossible.
Nonetheless, according to most reviews, this metamorphosis was achieved winningly when ''You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'' with songs by Clark Gesner and with Gary Burghoff (who went on to play Radar in the film and television versions of ''M*A*S*H'') in the title role, opened off Broadway at the tiny Theater 80 St. Marks in 1967. A ''small miracle'' was how Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Times, described the show. ''Almost everything works,'' Kerr went on to say, ''because almost everything is effortless.''
Effortless, unfortunately, is exactly what this new incarnation, staged by Michael Mayer, is not. The production has been revised to incorporate new material from Mr. Schulz's strips, and, while most of Mr. Gesner's original score remains, it has been extensively rearranged by Andrew Lippa, who also has written several new songs. The problem isn't that the new material fails to mesh with the old, or even that the original material feels particularly dated, though it does bring to mind the zippy, quick-take revue format made popular by the old ''Laugh-In'' television series.
The real problem is a matter of scale. ''Charlie Brown'' was created for an intimate space, and it is telling that when it reopened on Broadway in 1971, many critics felt that much of its original charm had evaporated. For this version, the ever inventive designer David Gallo has filled the Ambassador stage with neon-crayon-color sets (matched by Michael Krass's costumes) that give an electric jolt to the lines of Mr. Schulz's fabled draftsmanship. But there's an uncomfortable feeling of dead air that the cast, led by Anthony Rapp (of the original ''Rent'') as Charlie, must work much too hard to fill.
Songs that were created as droll, low-key character portraits have been reconceived as showstoppers, and the frail, winsome little bodies of these numbers just aren't up to the job. When Linus (B. D. Wong) sings a duet with his famous security blanket, which has been wired to dance on its own, the sequence has a flailing, improvised quality that is the stuff of actors' nightmares.
So does the song in which Charlie Brown wrestles with a recalcitrant kite. What we should be focusing on is the poor fellow's exasperation, his sense of being eternally at odds with his environment. Yet somehow, all I could see was the bobbing kite string that stretched across the stage. Charlie Brown himself might as well have been invisible.
This has something to do with Mr. Rapp's very strange conception of his part. The actor, who was a dynamo in ''Rent,'' plays Charlie Brown not as an aggrieved, complaining target of the slings and arrows of daily life but as a passive, saintly innocent.
With his fixed beatific smile, his hair flattened against his head and his eyes as sweetly glazed as a Krispy Kreme doughnut, he suggests those clean-cut young people who approach you in airports with religious pamphlets. This is not a Charlie Brown that anyone except possibly some New Age cultist could identify with, and there is a hole where the show's empathic center should be.
As Schroeder, the Beethoven-loving pianist, Stanley Wayne Mathis seems comparably hard pressed to find any real character to play. As the titanically crabby Lucy Van Pelt, Ilana Levine gives a shtick-driven performance, hitting each word and each note as though with a mallet.
Mr. Wong, as a lisping Linus, fares better, though he occasionally slides into preciousness. And Roger Bart, in the plum role of Snoopy, the charismatic beagle, incorporates some delightful doglike mannerisms. He does a nice job with the ''Red Baron'' number, which also offers the evening's most ingenious visual effects. But his hymn to the joys of eating, ''Suppertime,'' which should bring down the house, is deflatingly oversold in both the staging and the orchestration.
Mr. Mayer has proven himself a solid and resourceful director of dramas with the recent Broadway productions of ''A View From the Bridge'' and ''Side Man.'' But as he demonstrated in his staging of ''Triumph of Love,'' he is clearly less comfortable with musicals. Mr. Schulz's characters, though cartoons, are a sly and subtle lot, and they don't benefit from hard-sell performances. Their sweetly neurotic souls get lost when their interpreters are beaming away like an Up With People chorus. (The show's signature song, ''Happiness,'' is, and always was, pure syrup.)
On the other hand, it was Mr. Mayer who was largely responsible for shaping the interpolated role of Sally and for casting Ms. Chenoweth in the part, and for that he deserves much credit. Debating relentlessly with an unseen schoolteacher about receiving the grade of a C on her wire-hanger sculpture, scowling at a hopelessly tangled jump rope or vengefully explaining to Snoopy that he is at the bottom of the family's chain of command, Ms. Chenoweth's Sally finds a mega-volt show business energy in life's unresting siege of frustrations.
This is all conveyed through postures that amazingly replicate the stances of Mr. Schulz's drawn characters without seeming stiff (her accusatory extended arm is divine), and her shiny, perfectly pitched voice seems a natural extension of her physical presence.
Watching her here is what it must have been like to catch a novice named Bernadette Peters lighting up a musical spoof called ''Dames at Sea'' 30 years ago. Ms. Chenoweth has appeared in New York before, most notably in ''Steel Pier'' and Encores' concert version of ''Strike Up the Band,'' but this is the part that should seal her reputation. This glow cast by a star-in-the-making gives a real Broadway magic to a show that otherwise feels sadly shrunken in a Times Square theater.
Pretty as a pop-up children's book, and just about as substantial, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" arrives on Broadway following a 30-year history as a beloved Off Broadway sleeper hit and a favorite of high schools, summer camps and probably every other amateur theatrical outfit imaginable, from the East Winnemucca Civic Light Opera on up.
Michael Mayer's sprightly production has been spruced up with some new material and new songs, but its humble virtues are the same ones you'd remember from the version you a) saw, b) directed or c) starred in at Robin Hood Summer Camp: perky, pleasant tunes, the genial silliness of adults playing little kids (and a beagle), the indelible appeal of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" creations. The question is whether audiences will find re-experiencing those rather wispy charms -- and introducing them to their kids -- worth the hefty price of 1999 Broadway tickets.
That said, there is one major change that gives this version a particular sparkle. In the part of Sally, C.B.'s little sister and a role not in the original version of the musical, Kristin Chenoweth is a daffy, delirious delight. Chenoweth is blessed with a naturally childlike quality -- tiny stature, big eyes and a tart squeak of a voice that explodes into a Broadway belt as needed. She shines brightest here because she effortlessly gives off the illusion of being a kid acting like an adult, while most of the other performers are clearly adults acting like kids, a more heavy-handed effect.
Protesting an unacceptable grade for her coat hanger sculpture with the assiduousness of a House prosecutor pressing for conviction, or suddenly attacked by a bout of existential angst ("I was jumping rope ... and all of a sudden everything seemed so futile"), Chenoweth perfectly captures the unique appeal of Schulz's creations, deadpan tykes plagued by neuroses well beyond their years.
But is it too much to suggest that the innocent fun in that idea, as it applies to Charlie Brown, has soured a little with the passing decades? Much of the show's comedy derives from the endless abuse the other kids heap on poor Charlie; his resultant misery we would now instantly define as low self-esteem.
Anthony Rapp plays Charlie with a lightly plaintive touch, but the constant enumeration of Charlie's faults, his lonely lunch hours, lack of valentines and rejection by his own dog add up to a rather grim picture of childhood. (And I thought "Parade" was a downer!) In the flesh as opposed to newsprint, it's now hard not to see Charlie Brown as a little kid with a big future on Prozac.
Still, kids aren't likely to notice any such undercurrents. Rapp and his fellow performers -- Ilana Levine as a nasally nasty Lucy, Stanley Wayne Mathis as Schroeder, B.D. Wong as the blanket-clutching Linus -- are a generally jubilant bunch, giving their all to putting across a score by Clark Gesner that is sturdy enough to withstand years of revivals without being particularly brilliant.
New songs by musical supervisor Andrew Lippa blend in smoothly, with Sally's "My New Philosophy" probably the best. Indeed much of Sally's material, mostly new, has a '90s edge that the rest of the show lacks (a duet with Roger Bart's Snoopy that spoofs "Hawaii Five-O" and James Bond pics gives a lift to the saggy first act).
In the surefire role of Schulz's beagle with attitude, Bart delivers the show's other standout performance, using a wicked but endearing leer to suggest Snoopy's devious charm. His "Red Baron" battle, augmented by the clever set designs of David Gallo, kicks off the second act with a comic rush, and he brings it to a climax in the penultimate number, "Suppertime," delivered with mock-Jolsonesque fervor.
Gallo's sets are refreshingly unpretentious for this high-tech age, mostly two-dimensional blowups inspired by Schulz's instantly recognizable style. An oversized couch and an undersized piano also slide around in front of a blank backdrop that's drenched in an eye-catching array of rich colors.
But despite the high-quality polish and hard work from the creative team behind this revival, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" is still a mere trifle whose pleasant impression barely outlasts its brief running time -- a Broadway berth only points up its essentially unassuming nature. Folks returning for nostalgic purposes may be surprised to find that a show that has long lingered in their memory turns out to be so forgettable.