That Beloved Blockhead

It’s a day in the lives of the Peanuts gang.  Join them in their adventures of life in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown currently playing at Great Plains Theatre.

This show is what theatre is all about.  After viewing this production, I think it should be the first show any performer should undertake because it offers actors the opportunity to completely embrace their inner child and just get into the simple enjoyment of pretending and that is the place from which great acting arises.  And, believe me, this ensemble cast understands that and blasts the ball right out of the park with a merry, fun filled production suitable for the entire family.

Clark Goeser’s script does a remarkable job capturing the spirit of the original comic strip.  Astonishingly, this show holds together despite the fact that there is no singular plot.  It’s like watching a series of comics come to life before your eyes.  In fact, some of the interstitials and scenes were pulled straight from the newspaper.  And, yet, it all flows so naturally and truly feels like just another day in the neighborhood.

Goeser’s songs are also a great deal of fun, sometimes incredibly sad and sweet and the additional dialogue of Michael Mayer and songs of Andrew Lippa seamlessly merge into Goeser’s original story.

Directors Mitchell Aiello and Melissa Ford effortlessly bring this production to life.  It’s clear they understand the spirits of Charles Schulz’s characters and bring them to colorful and vibrant life.  They nail the beats of each individual scene and use the power of imagination (the show has very little staging) to pull the audience into the world of the Peanuts gang.  They’ve also guided their performers to pitch perfect depictions of Schulz’s iconic characters making them all instantly believable and recognizable.

Some of the terrific performances you’ll see in this production come from Emi Fishman who is a delight as Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally.  Fishman truly shines as the obnoxious younger sister as she wrestles with stupid jump ropes and develops new philosophies to shift blame away from her poor work in school.  Ben Jaeger is also right on the money with his take on Schroeder.  Jaeger’s Schroeder has that slightly snooty attitude needed for the Beethoven loving piano player.  His bare tolerance for Lucy’s constant presence at his piano is spot on and he is quite the athletic dancer with his backflips in “Beethoven Day”.  Nolan Hall brings a cute charm as Snoopy’s best friend, Woodstock.

Matthew Cox brings real intelligence and wisdom to the role of Linus.  Cox’s Linus has that even keeled nature one would expect from the gang’s resident philosopher and would especially be required of the younger brother of the combustible Lucy.  Cox’s Linus does have a tendency to be too smart for his own good as demonstrated by his doctoral level psychological analysis of the characters of Peter Rabbit, but I especially enjoyed his dependency on his blanket and the little things he did with it.  He didn’t simply drag it around.  He wore it, cuddled it, and even had an impressive tap routine with it in “My Blanket and Me”.

Given how much I disliked the character growing up, I’m amazed at what I’m about to say next.  Erica Lee Bigelow made Lucy my favorite character in this show.  Her commitment to the role is staggering and she perfectly captures the bullying, crabby, bellicose, arrogant, self-centered, selfish, overbearing nature of the neighborhood fussbudget.  Whether she’s doling out questionable advice to Charlie Brown, dreaming of being a queen, or simply pushing around her younger brother, Bigelow is just a scream as the resident brat of the group.

Mitchell Aiello is a hoot as Snoopy.  Aiello perfectly captures Snoopy’s free spirited nature as he truly marches to his own beat.  With Snoopy it’s hard to tell who’s the master and who’s the pet with his refusal to do traditional dog things like fetching and chasing rabbits (though he acquiesces on the latter to get Sally to stop bugging him) and harbors a certain disdain combined with a fierce loyalty to his beloved round-headed kid.  Highlights of Aiello’s performance were his interpretation of Snoopy gleefully escaping into his imagination to battle the Red Baron as the World War I Flying Ace and his showstopping performance in “Suppertime” as Snoopy’s well known mealtime dance morphs into a Broadway dance production.

Ultimately, the show needs to be anchored by its central character and Billy Eric Robinson is the Charlie Brown required for this show.  Robinson ably shows Charlie’s doubts, fears, and insecurities.  But he also shows his decency, his purity of heart, and his perseverance.  While Charlie never notices his more positive traits, it’s those traits that his friends admire most about him.  They may often chide him for his foibles, but they also gladly tell him that he is truly a good man.

Susie Jolink’s musical direction is a pristine piece of precision and having her onstage playing the piano for the musical pieces was an inspired bit of creativity.  Becky Dibben’s costumes look like they were taken right out of the comic strip with bright colors that just pop and match the clothing of the characters’ comic strip counterparts.  Jim Wohler Restorations provides a set that appears simple, but may be a bit more complex than this show typically gets.  Restorations sucks the viewer into the world of the show with the pillars of comic strips, the top of Snoopy’s doghouse, and Lucy’s psychiatric booth.  Mitchell Aiello’s lights also had that needed X factor with the lonely spotlight of Charlie’s sadder and more contemplative moments and the pizzazz of the flashing lights for the equally flashy “Suppertime”.

Great Plains Theatre has conjured a real gem with this production and you should get a ticket to enjoy it.  Bring the family.  Bring your friends.  Revel in your childhood once again and experience theatre in its purest and fullest sense.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at Great Plains Theatre through August 22. Showtimes are Wed, Sat-Sun at 2pm and Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm.  Tickets cost $40 ($20 for students) and can be purchased at  Great Plains Theatre is located at 215 N Campbell St in Abilene, KS.