Comic strips do not naturally translate into Broadway musicals, and indeed, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on “Peanuts,” started life Off Broadway in 1967, amassing an impressive run. A good musical, these days, being as hard to find as a good man, it’s not surprising that this nugatory nugget should re-emerge as a somewhat fancier Broadway offering. Clark Gesner, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music, never had a comparable success, but even one such whopper ain’t peanuts.
The present revival is a curious hybrid, half delightful, half letdown: The question is whether half a bird in hand is worth one in the bush. Clearly, if an adult cast of six is to animate a half-dozen popular cartoon figures – three little boys, two little girls, and one superdog – they have to be expert performers as well as something even more important: able to dig up the buried child (or dog) in themselves, not as easy as it sounds. Three cast members can; three fail.
Kristin Chenoweth, as Sally Brown, replacing another character in the original version, is something you won’t often encounter: perfection. Without stooping to caricature, the actress looks, sounds, walks, breathes sassy, precocious little-girlhood, solemnly sure of her worth and exercising her superiority with serene loftiness. You do not have to be a parent, or even a man, to want to wrap her in tissue paper and take her home with you. Her love is Linus Van Pelt, he of the famed security blanket. Linus is incarnated by B. D. Wong, no stripling but a veteran actor who can gaze and chatter as ingenuously as if born yesterday. Yet he is also the thinker of the gang, manifestly sucking his wisdom out of his thumb.
Roger Bart, tall, clean-cut, frat-boyish, would not seem to be the likeliest Snoopy, especially not without a dog mask, tail, and other such appurtenances. But it just goes to show that a dog’s Bart can be as good as his bite: The actor is the essence of dogginess from the optimistic expectancy in his eyes to the bounce in his cavortings. When he hunkers down for a siesta, his limbs jellify into sensuous bonelessness, and his growls melt into blissfully dying burbles. His fantasizing himself as that flying ace, the Red Baron, is as airy-hairy as caninely possible, and he is equally at home in the pilot seat of a Fokker triplane as surveying the world from the top of his doghouse.
Lucy Van Pelt, the pint-size termagant with the gargantuan ego, requires a particularly fine actress to bring out the Xanthippe-adoring Socrates in all of us. Alas, the stringbeany Ilana Levine wields no such magic. Her tormenting of brother Linus and uncouth attempts to vamp Schroeder are technically correctly executed, but we never forget that this is acting, and by an adult at that. As Schroeder, the Beethoven-obsessed keyboard belaborer, Stanley Wayne Mathis, good as he was in Jelly’s Last Jam and The Lion King, would not appear to be the obvious choice. And sure enough, his Schroeder is only obvious, not choice. He conveys no genuine childlikeness, and when he infuses his singing with St. Louis Woman-ish soul, the spirit of Ludwig Van is betrayed.
The crowning fiasco, however, is the Charlie of Anthony Rapp. In the vastly overrated Rent, he was, in my view, the greatest irritant, but he was doubtless cast here as bait for the Rent fans. His straining to portray a lovable loser only emphasizes his basic smarminess. Hard as it is to define charm, I can define its opposite in two words: Anthony Rapp.
Clark Gesner’s music and lyrics never rise above the functional, but at least they are that. The book is better, thanks to the original “Peanuts” vendor, Charles Schulz. The best song is Sally’s “My New Philosophy,” which, like other good things here, is new and by Andrew Lippa. Nobody does cartoonish scenery better than David Gallo, whose dizzying cleverness transcends into arch-clever dizzyingness for the Red Baron flying sequence. Kenneth Posner’s lighting is not a whit less ingenious, and not for a moment witless. Michael Krass’s costumes seem to be cut from not cloth but smiles, and Michael Mayer’s direction tirelessly whips these ex-drawings into exciting life.