Walking into the Avon Theatre to see You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, you may suspect you've accidentally arrived at a theatre where a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon is playing.
Michael Gianfrancesco's set is a series of candy-coloured, nested proscenium arches that bring to mind the concentric circles that Porky Pig pops out of at the end of old Warner Bros. animated shorts.
As it happens, a Looney Tunes take on Peanuts is what you get in director Donna Feore's production of this 1999 update of the 1967 off-Broadway revue that loosely follows a day in the life of Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts characters.
Feore ramps up the energy to a manic Bugs Bunny level in an approach that is certainly lively, but it runs rather roughshod over the existentialist bent of Schultz's original strip. As a result, Stephen Patterson's zany, poker-faced Snoopy, rather than Ken James Stewart's sad-sack Charlie Brown, is the star of the show.
At one point, Snoopy dons a Viking helmet and sings "Kill the wabbit!" with vibrato in an homage to the Chuck Jones' classic What's Opera, Doc? Later, he puts on a pair of Groucho glasses to deliver the Marx Brothers' zinger: "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
Those aren't the only add-ons. Though the lyrics of Clark Gesner's original songs refer to stickball and marbles, Snoopy is the proud owner of a BlackBerry Playbook (what a non-conformist) and carries a cell phone that has Macarena as its ring tone.
During the rabbit chasing scene with Charlie Brown's little sister Sally (a pert Amy Wallis), she dons Kanye West shades while the notorious B.E.A.G.L.E. wraps gold chains around his neck and raps about being "the original Snoop dog."
Purists will balk, but the opening night audience ate up what you might charitably call Feore's post-modern aesthetic.
Alas, I happen to be one of those purists and so found much of this production a travesty. It felt like a slightly out-of-touch marketer's attempt to re-brand Peanuts as The New Adventures of Charlie Brown for a younger generation.
Admittedly, raised on hand-me-down Peanuts collections and low-key television specials, I've always found You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown slightly out-of-tune with the source material. It's a collection of jokes lifted directly from the strips that simply aren't very effective when read aloud, intermingled with songs that mildly pervert the characters of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally and Schroeder.
To those who listen to the Vince Guaraldi album every Christmas, Peanuts is about jazz, not show tunes – particularly, the saccharine, unmemorable brand of ditty penned by Gesner. (The catchiest tune, My New Philosophy, was written by Andrew Lippa for the 1999 Broadway revival that substituted Sally for Patty.)
Putting aside my own crabbiness, it's undeniable that You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown's young cast has tremendous talent.
The boyish Shaw Festival graduate Stewart has the perfect "failure face" for Charlie Brown, while Erica Peck finds just the right amount of bossiness for Lucy – and brings a rocker edge to the part. A bright-eyed Kevin Yee makes Linus his own neurotic creation, while Wallis's mischievous, Teletubby-esque Sally will please the ADHD kiddies in the audience almost as much as Patterson's Snoopy. Only Andrew Broderick as Schroeder seems less than fully comfortable in his role.
Gianfrancesco's set is truly scrumptious, including a morphing Snoopy's doghouse that contains a delightful surprise for the Suppertime number, and the cartoon-inspired projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis are brilliantly employed.
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown inaugurates a new stream of children's plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It seems an bizarre choice, arriving as it does 12 years after Schultz's death. Do kids these days really know Peanuts as anything beyond the foodstuff banned from their lunchboxes?
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
- Based on Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz
- Book, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner
- Additional dialogue by Michael Mayer
- Additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa
- Directed by Donna Feore
- Starring Ken James Stewart
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at Stratford's Avon Theatre until Oct. 28.