Nashville Children's Theatre has made an art of bridging the gap between children's attention spans and adult engagement, perhaps most impressively in its recent rousing Sherlock Holmes drama. In that regard, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the Clark Gesner musical based on Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters, would seem to be a perfect fit. While it retains some of the charm of its source material and Gesner's original musical, however, it rarely hits the heights within its reach.
The cartoon origins of Charlie Brown do not automatically place it in the kiddie realm, mainly because creator Schulz infused his comic strip with subtle sophistication and vast reserves of melancholy. While happiness may be a warm puppy, there was always a level of thwarted yearning in Peanuts that struck a chord with adults.
That undercurrent — mixed with gentle sarcasm, sly satire and whimsical fantasy — is well in evidence in the musical. A revue of unrelated scenes enacted by Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Snoopy and the shlumpy sun at the center of their universe, good ol' Charlie Brown, the show was a big hit 45 years ago, when its wistful innocence came as a kind of pre-Hair tonic. Then it was revised in 1999 with new songs by Andrew Lippa and book additions by Michael Mayer, for a Broadway revival that lasted long enough to net Kristin Chenoweth a Tony Award in the newly added role of Charlie Brown's little sister Sally.
Alas, as was clear when Boiler Room Theatre gave this version its local premiere in 2003, the updates are no improvement on the tight, tuneful 1967 original. The added songs "My New Philosophy" and "Beethoven Day" are by far the weakest — no match for the original's "The Red Baron" and "Queen Lucy," which were cut for the revised version but wisely reinstated here by director Scot Copeland.
Worse, the changes in tempo and energy to some of the show's best numbers — the rousing "T.E.A.M." and "The Kite" — have the unfortunate side effect of muffling their high spirits. The effect is especially glaring on Snoopy's climactic "Suppertime," which now seems almost tame without its uproarious music-hall bounce. That's not a knock against the musical direction and accompaniment by Russell Davis, along with Kevin Madill, both on keyboards, who render the new arrangements faithfully.
Thankfully, the opening title song and the friendly show closer "Happiness" maintain their verve. And the Act 1 closer "The Book Report" definitely elicits knowing laughter from grown-ups and kids alike — a testament to the acuity and timeless insights of Schulz's best work. "Little Known Facts," a lively tribute to Lucy's silly bossiness, also plays well.
Once again, director Copeland has convened a cast of NCT veterans whose ranks include much of the city's A-team of proven musical-theater talent, among them Martha Wilkinson, Bobby Wyckoff and Patrick Waller. Shawn Knight makes a workable but less-than-endearing Charlie Brown, while Rona Carter choreographed and plays Lucy; as Snoopy, Jeff Boyet, a talented dramatic actor, never musters the abandon needed to sock "Suppertime" out of the park.
All are familiar and capable. And yet as churlish as it may seem to complain about having so many gifted, seasoned performers in one cast, a show that depends this much on youth, insecurity and finding your place in the world cries out for fresh faces.
That makes it hard not to see this Charlie Brown as something of a missed opportunity. Nashville has many under-recognized musical performers who labor in less publicized venues, with little or no compensation for their abilities. The show could use their hunger and eagerness to prove themselves. Instead, what's here is a generally serviceable rendition of a show that deserves better than generally serviceable.
While Michael Redman's scenic design is busier than one might expect for such a simple show, there are some lovely backdrops and a moving sky, and Snoopy's big red doghouse gets an entertaining workout in "The Red Baron." (Lucy's oversized psychiatrist's booth is worth a chuckle on its own.) Scott Leathers provides the lighting, and Patricia Taber's costumes are, as always, on the money.
In a sense, NCT, one of the city's oldest and most accomplished companies, is a victim here of the high bar it has set for itself each time out. And to be fair, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown will ably fill the craving for seasonal family entertainment. It's nobody's idea of a football snatched away at the last second, to be sure — but that stubborn kite could certainly use a tailwind.