First Stage's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is More than the Sum of its Parts

Jack Forbes Wilson, Matt Daniels, and cast in A Charlie Brown Christmas, First Stage Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Jack Forbes Wilson, Matt Daniels, and cast in A Charlie Brown Christmas, First Stage
Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

 

When CBS commissioned Charles Schulz to write a 30-minute Christmas special featuring his famous cartoon alter ego Charlie Brown, network executives did not get the sweet, typical holiday program they expected. Far from an exuberant celebration of presents and jingle bells, the 1965 animated program began with Charlie Brown’s gloomy statement that he just didn’t understand Christmas, and didn’t know how to get into the holiday spirit.

Rushed to production in only six months, the story was sparse and the score, by pianist Vince Guaraldi, featured jazz (!). What’s more, the Peanuts gang was all voiced by children, and the show didn’t have a laugh track—both huge departures from the Hollywood norm. Finally, the pessimistic theme that the holiday was too commercialized was countered by Linus reciting Bible verses describing the birth of Jesus, at a time when religious content was taboo. The producers were beside themselves. They braced themselves for an embarrassing flop.

Of course what they got was an enduring and touching story that celebrates Christmas in an understated way—and one that thankfully put the burgeoning aluminum Christmas tree industry out of business.

This holiday season audiences can experience a live performance of the classic TV special featuring Snoopy et al., in First Stage’s musical A Charlie Brown Christmas, at the Todd Wehr Theater in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center through December 31st. Extremely faithful to the look and feel of Charles Schultz’s comic strips, and relying mainly on the text of the original program, this production doesn’t compete with the TV show or try to improve it. Instead it recreates the story in a new medium, adding in some touches that can only be achieved in live theater.

Lucy still pulls the football away from Charlie Brown, just as he’s about to kick it. There are still no Christmas cards waiting in the mailbox for our hero. Snoopy still outshines his master by winning a local decorating contest by covering his doghouse with lights and holiday baubles. Charlie Brown is still mocked when he comes back to rehearsal with a droopy pine twig for a Christmas tree.

But when the snow begins to fall and the Peanuts kids try to catch the flakes on their tongues, it’s magical. When Violet actually ice skates onstage, doing impressive spins and twirls, it’s breathtaking. And when the kids all start dancing to Schroeder’s familiar piano riff, their choreography perfectly matching the goofy actions of their animated twins, it’s joyful. And when Linus takes the stage to tell the Biblical story of the angels appearing to the shepherds, announcing Christ’s birth, it is simple and profound.

In the “Schultz” cast, one of two alternating groups of young people who perform, Zachary Church was the stand out, doing a pitch perfect, world weary Charlie Brown. His “Good grief!” hit just the right note of exasperation beyond his years. As know-it-all Lucy Van Pelt, Ivy Broder was a bit more mean than bossy, but John Aebly’s Linus and J. Jackson Vining’s Pig Pen were delightful surprises in small but essential roles.

The only adult in the cast is Matt Daniels, reprising his role as Snoopy. A frequent First Stage performer, and teacher at the organization’s theater academy, Daniels has an undeniable chemistry with young actors and a gift for creative physicality. Although he has no spoken lines, Daniels tells Snoopy’s stories with precision; as a World War I flying ace; as a cool cut-up who delights in licking Lucy’s face so he can hear her yell “Dog lips!” in protest; as a hungry pet demanding his dinner; and as a bell ringer soliciting donations.

Music director Jack Forbes Wilson underscores all these holiday adventures, sitting center stage at the electronic keyboard. Playing with panache and directing both the actors and the audience in a round of carols to finish the show, he connects the often disparate scenes with a common musical theme.

At its best the performance evokes nostalgia for the adults who remember crowding around the TV in their pajamas to see the annual Charlie Brown Christmas broadcast, decades ago. Without that experience to ground the production, it might seem like a disjointed series of vignettes that play out extremely slowly. (This is part of the problem with turning a 30-minute TV show into a 75-minute play.)

So, did the little kids who attended Saturday’s matinee performance know why Snoopy was battling the Red Baron, and then drinking rootbeer in a café somewhere in France? I have no idea. Did they love it when the Peanuts gang was throwing snowballs at a tin can, until Linus knocked it off the wall with the help of his trusty blanket? Yes. Do these things have anything to do with a Christmas story? Not really. Is it all part of the charm of Charlie Brown’s world?

Absolutely.