Charles Schulz wrote and illustrated his comic strip, Peanuts, for 50 years, beginning in 1950 (the last strip was published the morning after his death in February 2000). Regarded ahead of its time, its focus on quirky characters belied the fact that its content examined topical and, often, controversial subject matter. Schulz’s comic strip tales of his characters grappling with a variety of everyday problems actually forced readers to think about deeper issues, with attitudes to race, war and feminism among them. At the height of its success, Peanuts ran in 2,600 newspapers with a combined readership of 355 million people in 75 countries.
In 1967 – during the decade regarded as the golden age of Peanuts – Clark Gesner, composer and songwriter, created a stage musical around the comic strip. It enjoyed a successful New York season of almost 1,600 performances.
Decades on, in 1999, a revival of You’re a good man, Charlie Brown came to Broadway. Featuring new dialogue created by director Michael Mayer, the revival version also included additional songs and orchestrations from Andrew Lippa, as well as the addition of one character (Sally) and removal of another (Patty).
It’s this 1999 revival version that’s now playing at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, under the direction of Shaun Rennie, fresh from leading a highly successful and critically acclaimed production of Rent. While it’s designed primarily as a musical theatre work for children, it’s something likely to appeal as much (if not more) to older members of the room, particularly those who grew up with Schulz’s characters.
You’re a good man, Charlie Brown combines a collection of short stories involving six key characters from the Peanut comics – Charlie Brown (Mike Whalley), his younger sister, Sally (Laura Murphy), Lucy (Sheridan Harbridge), her younger brother, Linus (Ben Gerrard), Schroeder (Nat Jobe) and Snoopy (Andy Dexterity). Those short stories capture some significant moments/defining aspects of the Peanuts series, including Lucy’s ‘psychiatric booth’, Snoopy’s escape into his imaginary life as a World War I flying ace, taking on his imaginary enemy, The Red Baron, in his ‘fighter aircraft’ (his doghouse), and piano-playing protégé Schroeder’s adoration of Beethoven.
Responsible for the physical space the Peanuts characters inhibit, set designer Georgia Hopkins’ simple backdrop comprising a series of rough white canvasses is an apt homage to the comic strip, in which Schultz tended not to draw any backgrounds. Similarly, simple costuming makes each of Peanuts’ most popular characters easily recognisable but ensures it remains true to the look and feel of the comic strip.
But what defines this production of You’re a good man, Charlie Brown are the strong performances of its cast members. What’s particularly successful about Rennie’s direction is that he’s guided his cast members to perform in a manner in which they’re not mugging for laughs and overplaying the fact of these characters being young children. Overall, the actors succeed in making that fact clear through more subtle and nuanced acting decisions. Sheridan Harbridge is highly entertaining as the crabby, aggressive and bossy Lucy. She’s, at times, hilariously funny, essentially playing the show’s villain. Gerrard, as her younger brother, Linus, is surprisingly endearing as the group’s deep-thinker, whose childish behaviour (evidenced principally by his constant carrying of a security blanket) is contrasted by the pearls of wisdom he spouts throughout.
Jobe is consistently strong as Schroeder, the most entertaining in moments in which he eschews Lucy’s obvious displays of affection. And while credit must be given to choreographer Andy Dexterity, who stepped into the role of Snoopy late in the process (as a result of Rohan Browne’s recent casting in Singin’ in the rain), he seems yet to carve out a distinct character for his Snoopy that accurately reflects the nature of the comic strip favourite.
As central character, Charlie Brown, Whalley is well cast. He lacks the vocal power of some of his co-stars and his deliveries are, at times, tentative, but it all seems so true to the character he portrays (the nervous Brown, so totally lacking in self-confidence) that it’s surprisingly easy to overlook. His gentle, kind and unassuming Brown is so utterly likable that he’s an appropriate choice to lead this cast.
And finally, if there is any player on stage who tends to have more than their fair share of standout moments, it’s Laura Murphy as Charlie’s multi-faceted kid sister, Sally (the late addition to the musical’s cast in 1999). Hers is a skilled performance, defined by impeccable comedic timing and consistently strong vocals. In fact, her act II duet with Schroeder, ‘My new philosophy’, is arguably the greatest highlight of the show. It’s near impossible not to be won over by Murphy’s performance here.
You’re a good man, Charlie Brown will send its child audience members home suitably entertained over these school holidays but, like all good children’s theatre, will have more than just nostalgia in the mix for mum and dad too.
You’re a good man, Charlie Brown playes The Hayes Theatre (19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point) until July 30. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here