From 1950 to 2000 the Charles M Schulz cartoon Peanuts appeared as a newspaper syndication with a readership of 355 million in 75 countries. A fairly impressive beginning point, to be sure.
The iconic storyline follows the adventures of five children and a dog – all of whom traverse the existential angst of childhood (or doghood, as the case may be), society and the complexities of life. The metaphors are obvious, the messages optimistic and, at times, cloyingly saccharine.
Enter Clark Gesner in 1967 who created a musical version of the concept and Andrew Lippa in 1999, who added to the revision. And here we are, then, in 2024 with You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown – a Tony Award-winning musical staged at the Geelong Arts Centre by What’s On? Production Company.
Directed and produced by Paul Watson, this larger-than-life, colourful and visually enthusiastic production doesn’t let up. That’s a good thing. When the story is based on a cartoon the only way to go is big. And this show is big – from the costuming to the projections displaying trees, rabbits, walls, the passage of time and geography, to the performances that are strident, fun and fast-paced.
This isn’t a show that embraces any kind of nuance, and the performers bow down to the gods of heightened reality, slamming the message/joke/innuendo home with a sledgehammer wrapped in another sledgehammer.
This also isn’t an outing for audience members wishing to ponder the possibilities or importance of subtlety in their theatrical adventures. There is no specific narrative arc, no storyline trajectory … no story at all, just a pastiche of moments, memories, feelings and encounters delivered at a breakneck speed by a group of performers who know exactly what they are doing and present every song, piece of dialogue and moment of dance with aplomb. It’s no easy task for adults to inhabit child characters with all the unease and ungainliness of a childish perspective, yet the cast manage all of this and more.
The show is, however, at times thoughtful, taking a breath from the juggernaut of loudness and frenetic theatricality: Charlie Brown (Andrew Lorenzo) pondering his future, Lucy van Pelt (Chelsea Gibb) examining her level of self-awareness or Linus (Quinlan Kelly) exploring his co-dependent relationship with his blanket. These are the moments where the show succeeds most, allowing us to stop, reassess and embrace the resonance of the piece.
The musical numbers, although showing their age, are performed with precision and zest thanks to the musical directorship of Brad Treloar. These are all highly experienced stage performers and even the odd moment of microphone crackling is dealt with swiftly.
The choreography, under the guidance of Venessa Paech, is entertaining and more than often dips a lid to the genius of Bob Fosse. A beautiful example of this is Suppertime, sung by Snoopy (Luke Alleva) and backed up by a posse (thanks Fosse) of Broadway-esque dancers. It’s a joyous, tongue-in-cheek homage to the style and it would be wonderful to see such irreverence in other areas of the production, allowing us to connect a little more and laugh at the silliness a little longer.
The performances are fabulous. Sophia Katos as Sally Brown inhabits this forerunner to Lisa Simpson (think contemplation of large philosophical concepts) with conviction and commitment. Andrew Smith as Schroeder also brings a fascinating brittleness to the character. Lorenzo’s Charlie Brown is adorably anguished, Gibb’s Lucy takes it to 11 in every scene, Kelly’s Linus is suitably man-baby ridiculous and Alleva’s Snoopy treads a fascinating and entertaining character line between a dog and a modern day Frank Thring (think camp, theatrical and self-absorbed).
The difficulty of this production lies not with the presentation, the company or the performances, which are all stellar. The difficulty of this production lies with the material. Haven’t we moved beyond American stories of the mid-20th century? Haven’t we moved beyond the necessity for American accents and storylines about baseball games? Haven’t we moved beyond ablest character tropes such as lisping? Haven’t we moved beyond gender stereotypes that position male characters as justifiably aggressive, yet female characters as brash/bossy and therefore requiring some kind of containment?
Lucy is noted (often in the text) as “crabby”. She is the only character asked to change. Linus is allowed to be babyish and suck his thumb. Charlie is allowed to be anxious. Schroeder is allowed to be angry and abrupt. It is Lucy, however, who must adjust her behaviour and, by the end, literally and figuratively give Charlie her crown so he can feel better. Haven’t we moved beyond such patriarchal concepts?
The production’s program suggests that the show is a ‘timeless, whimsical and joyful musical with relatable humour and life lessons for audiences of all ages’. While this is true, and this show is captivating and uplifting and polished, there is surely something to be gained from stories that reach further into a 21st century sensibility.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Director: Paul Watson
Producer/Production Manager: Lyndall Watson
Musical Director: Brad Treloar
Choreographer: Venessa Paech
Sound Design: Ben Anderson Sound Design
Lighting Design: ISLX and Ian Scott
Set Design and Built: What’s On? Production Company
Costumes: Lyndall Watson and Jacinta Rich
Wig Stylist: Adamo Di Biase
Cast: Chelsea Gibb, Luke Alleva, Andrew Lorenzo, Sophia Katos, Quinlan Kelly and Andrew Smith
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was presented by What’s On? Production Company at Geelong Arts Centre from 11-13 January, to be followed by a state-wide tour.