Charlie Brown isn’t just a kid’s tale in Berkeley theater production

Elizabeth Klingen/Senior Staff

Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” tackles the serious business of childhood with a playful sensibility, in a musical revival of the characters of Charles M. Schultz’s popular comic strip, “Peanuts”. Director Christina Lazo captures the spirit of Schultz’s penetrating humor, while maintaining his social commentary and insights.

Composer and lyricist Clark Gesner’s score, which is comprised of a series of vignettes with a musical number for each scene, is inextricably linked with the comic strip form. The production collects the fragmentary strips and turns them into a coherent, self-contained work of art. At 120 minutes long, the play chronicles an average day in the life of familiar schoolboy Charlie Brown (Zac Schuman) and his affable friends.

Childhood emotion — an uninhibited and arresting force — guides the direction of Charlie Brown’s day. The play evokes gut-wrenching responses by baring the anxieties and vulnerabilities that seep through the rose-colored glasses of childhood. Lazo manages to capture the inner dynamics of Schultz’s psychologically complex characters, skillfully pulling us into a reality of bullies and book reports.

Despite the light-hearted reputation of “Peanuts,” distress is present in nearly every scene of this adaptation, coyly hiding under a veneer of casual cheer. Strong-headed Lucy (Ashley Cowl), in a self-conscious voice, questions her peers about her personality defects.“Where would you rate me with regards to crabbiness?” she asks. Similarly, Charlie Brown suffers from a lack of confidence despite his outward optimism.

The play subverts any expectation of a production solely based on childhood pleasures, and instead delivers a nostalgic world with a realistic element of inner turmoil. Tellingly, songs about rage and hopelessness cut short lovesick longing and daydreaming to illustrate the unpredictable nature of a child’s experience. A synesthetic blend of colored spotlights and fast musical pacing set the tempo, heightening the atmosphere and impact of the heated scenes.

In the style of Schultz’s strips, the play avoids explicitly addressing gender equality issues, unfolding instead as a socially progressive satire. All the while, a deliberate build-up of gender-role pigeonholing raises unease in a contemporary audience. The characters remain true to their comic caricatures: idealistic Schroeder (Danny Quezada) dreams of fostering musical education in “Beethoven Day,” Lucy fantasizes about her regality in “Queen Lucy” and pedantic Linus’ (Kevin Hammond) puffed-up intelligence offsets Sally’s (Harmony Livingston) overblown bullheadedness.

As with many kid-friendly fares, the perfect ending may irritate, and adages about happiness smack of triteness. Performed for a predominantly youthful audience, the script is saddled with blunt dialogue that is not poetically artful so much as stripped down to its primary function.

This leaves room for delivery to become the main focus, shining through stylized gestures and pantomimed exaggerations for comic effect — especially apparent in a snarky portrayal of Snoopy (Alex Rodriguez). Indeed, the cast delivers its naturalistic lines with glee, allowing the audience to momentarily forget that the dialogue is scripted rather than a spontaneous outpouring of emotion.

Despite an otherwise insightful and intelligent production, a segment entitled “The Book Report” features a white projector screen with footage of running rabbits — a technical advancement incongruous with the handmade props of the set. Its awkward appearance in a set of hand-drawn trees and speech bubbles feels out of place for a “Peanuts” adaptation. The legendary, decades old “Charlie Brown” doesn’t need to be modernized to remain relevant, and the production crew would have been wise to remember that.

Small weaknesses aside, the director’s handling of fear and desire answers to the experiences of the audience, affecting the child in all of us. By summoning a poignant evocation of youth, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” expresses a tension between past and present, childhood and adulthood and serves as a reminder to live with natural wonder.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” will be playing until March 15. Any student showing a valid student ID at the box office within one hour of the performance can purchase a ticket for $10

Contact Danielle Shi at [email protected].