Sunday, November 01, 2015

Peanuts Gang Goes Jaded in Belmont Student Production of "Charlie Brown"

Lucy is a flask-swilling drunk who blows chunks. Snoopy peddles a publication about the homeless while brown-bagging his Muscatel. Sally is an air-headed bimbo in a push-up bra. Linus's security blanket is a pack of Marlboros.

That what it's like in the alternative world of Belmont University Student Theatre's weekend production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the now nearly 50-year-old musical based on the late Charles M. Schulz' classic comic strip Peanuts.

This is a totally student-driven production, performed and directed by a platoon of ambitious and talented college kids, which Belmont continues to produce like the fruit growing on so many Florida orange trees. In fact, there's so much talent in Belmont's music, dance and theater programs that there aren't enough campus productions to accommodate their theatrical urges. Hence, BUST, endorsed by faculty and staff, and, in this case, performing at Bongo After Hours Theatre, across the street from the school and its excellent but apparently overbooked venues.

In at least one way, the BUST kids are taking a liberty with Schulz that's echoed in the new Peanuts Movie that releases this week: Offering us the physical embodiment of the Little Red-Haired Girl, hapless leading man Charlie Brown's perennial crush. Purists will see this as a huge transgression, and it is reasonably certain that deceased creator Schulz will be turning in his grave when the film opens.

Here, LRHG's a fairly quiet presence—mainly because she does not appear in the actual script, so her modest activity has to be trumped up. But that doesn't stop the BUST creative team from taking other huge liberties with the material, performed in arrangement with Tams-Witmark Music Library. The imposed setup deletes the childhood world of Schulz and—in the spirit of Dog Sees God, Bert V. Royal's 2004 spoof that turns the Peanuts gang into troubled teens—recasts them as young professional office workers, poised at their (school)desks, staring at their iPads and dealing with their own brand of dysfunction.

This new universe does not stop anyone from singing the enduring songs, of course, most written by Clark Gesner in 1967, others added in a 1999 Broadway revival. Hard to believe, the program credits none of the original creators. Chalk it up to youthful oversight.

As for Charlie Brown, he's still a lovable sad sack, though his "Kite Song" is somehow transformed into an ode to marijuana. (Flying high. Get it?) Some numbers, like Snoopy's "The Red Baron," are well-played but are absent context (and perhaps simply dated). This happens also with "The Book Report," a rousing and fairly textured company number that makes no sense if we're inside the corporate offices of this reimagined world. Yet it works, as the kids just burst into song as necessary and we find ourselves simply going with the flow. (Among the other great numbers is the memorable "Suppertime," Snoopy's celebration of food, in this case, a McDonald's cheeseburger.)  

From the title song opener to the still poignant closer "Happiness," we experience a lot of wonderful music, including even a cagey but brief little snippet of Vince Guaraldi as excerpted from the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Credit music director Corwin Davis with keeping it all together with his seven student players, who, on balance, do an amazing job. If all the chops aren't perfect, they are surely good enough, and you can bet the learning experience is invaluable.  (They are still students, after all.)

The irrepressibly appealing cast numbers 12, all eager and willing under the direction of Arik Vega, who is assisted by choreographer Wesley Carpenter. The standout performers include Adam Stecker, Charlie Allen, Jack Tanzi and Chris Lee, the latter seen off-campus earlier this year with Street Theatre Company in their production of Heathers. Cameron Cipolla makes a particularly strong impression as Sally, moving and singing as boldly as the celebrity she seems to be successfully channeling: Kristin Chenoweth, who won a Tony Award in the role in the Broadway revival.

Finally, there's Cassie Donegan, who comes off way hotter than Schulz probably would've ever envisioned his Lucy. Stuffed tightly into her zip-up royal blue skirt, Donegan certainly doesn't lack for crabby confidence, black high heels and all. Perhaps she has potential as an ingenue/leading lady type, yet she seems already to have achieved serious character actress status, never mind her youth. Like Lucy always was, Donegan is in command, and when she leads we follow.

The Bongo After Hours space is a fairly tight squeeze, of course. Nevertheless, the endlessly energetic ensemble performs with no microphones, which should make their teachers mighty proud. And kudos to the prop mistress for summoning up what looks like an original issue Peanuts lunch box from God knows when.

Whether Schulz would approve of college kids monkeying around with the childhood world that meant so much to him—as man and artist—who's to know? But maybe it's a firm testament to his inspiration that even viewing it through the jaded prism of adult life only allows us to better appreciate the child that's in all of us—and never leaves us no matter how old we get.

As of this writing, there's one performance left, today at 2 p.m., with the outside possibility of an evening performance. Catch the show at Bongo After Hours Theatre, 2007 Belmont Blvd., Nashville.

No comments: