Hang on, Snoopy

Good grief! Happiness is Charlie Brown at Theatre Three; Patsy Cline and Magi are magical, too.

Can Snoopy be due for a comeback? Back in the 1960s and '70s, the black and white beagle and his pie-faced little pals from Charles M. Schulz's cartoon strip Peanuts reigned as beloved pop-culture icons, up there with rock stars and astronauts. Even during the flower power years, more than 150 million readers followed the simple musings of Peanuts in daily newspapers. CBS' first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965 drew 55 million viewers, seen in more than half of the TV households in the country. Kids played with Peanuts dolls. Bumper stickers and T-shirts relayed the Schulzism that "Happiness is a warm puppy."

But eventually Peanuts went stale, joining Nancy and Blondie as comics so old-fashioned they were irrelevant. Schulz died in 2000, and by that time his daily Peanuts strip already had been reduced to tired reruns on the funny pages. The characters he'd introduced in 1950 seemed quaint and anachronistic to young 'uns more attuned to the rantings of the profane tykes of South Park.

Then last month in The New Yorker, what turns up but novelist Jonathan Franzen offering a lengthy appreciation of Peanuts, as sure a sign as any that a resurgence of Schulziana is on the way. Franzen, author of the best seller The Corrections, called the writing in the old Peanuts strips brilliant for its "koanlike inscrutability" and offered his assessment that Schulz was nothing less than "the best comic strip artist who ever lived." With that heavy-hitting endorsement, maybe it is time to rediscover the neurotic whimsy of Charlie Brown and his curly-haired little sister Sally, to re-evaluate the nascent feminist fire behind schoolyard bully Lucy Van Pelt or the Zen-like serenity of her blanket-hugging brother Linus. Piano-playing Schroeder? Surely a savant. Snoopy, the beagle with a thousand faces.

Charlie Brown: a good play and a good musical, with Brian Gonzales, center, in the lead role
Charlie Brown: a good play and a good musical, with Brian Gonzales, center, in the lead role

Theatre Three appears to be tap dancing into the cultural zeitgeist then with its bouncy production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The Clark Gesner musical was a smash on Broadway in the '60s, revived for another successful run in 1999 with fresh dialogue by Michael Mayer and new songs by Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party). With its production, Theatre Three offers two solid hours of music and laughs. It's all gentle, G-rated humor (uncomplicated by plot) and a chance to see Schulz's characters come to life in three dimensions.

"It's hard on a face when it gets laughed in," says the title character, played with guileless charm by Brian Gonzales. Chuck is a pint-sized George Costanza in a wide yellow shirt. His kites won't fly. The Little Red-Haired Girl is out of his league. But his optimism never flags. He's the target of Lucy's endless humiliations, but Charlie Brown soldiers on, grudge-free and full of trust. Schulz's genius was the wisdom he conveyed through viewing the world with a child's (or wise beagle's) simple logic. Like Charlie Brown, when you're 5, anything seems possible and every day holds the promise of a miracle. Good things to remember at 25 or 45, too.

It doesn't seem odd at all to accept grown-up actors playing kindergarteners in You're a Good Man. Harland Wright's oversized, crayon-colored set pieces and over-scaled furniture dwarf the six performers, who throw themselves around with childlike abandon.

Gonzales, co-star of Plano Rep's recent Camelot, is just right as Charlie Brown, playing him as a worried little schlemiel in need of talk therapy. Under a cloud of blond curls as Sally, Arianna Movassagh bubbles and bleats a lot like Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth, who played the role in that most recent New York revival. As tiny tyrant Lucy, Megan Kelly attacks jokes and high notes like she has a black belt in musical comedy. Ric Leal, who also designed the costumes, turns Snoopy's peppy "Suppertime" number into an Act 2 showstopper. The darling Eric Archilla, so good in Second Thought Theatre's recent drama Orphans, gets to sing and dance with a live version of his Linus' beloved blue blanket (also played by Movassagh). The only disappointment in the cast is Ja'Rod as Schroeder, but he's not onstage enough to dampen the fun.

Happiness is a nice night out at the theater, and what a nice surprise this show is. Terry Dobson's directing is inventive and devoid of visual clichés. Choreography by Michael Serrecchia shows unexpected wit. It's this stage's best show this season.

Watching WaterTower Theatre's A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, one thing becomes clear. You don't have to know a thing about Cline, the country music star who died in a plane crash in 1963, to appreciate the remarkable voice of the woman who plays her. Jenny Thurman owns the role of Cline, having starred in previous musicals about her at WaterTower. But maybe it's time for Thurman to use her spectacular voice to become a star in her own right.

Thurman definitely has perfected Cline's trademark glide into a lyric, the hint of a yodel between notes. Close your eyes and you'd swear you were at the Grand Ole Opry circa 1960 listening to the real thing. She's that good. Better, in fact, than the material in this show.

Dean Regan's bare-bones script structures the two acts as a live radio program, a musical tribute that takes Cline from her early days up to her triumphant appearance at Carnegie Hall. Actor Chamblee Ferguson acts as the radio host, reading bio notes on Cline between songs. He pops up again as a hillbilly comic on the Opry and as a Catskills-type stooge opening for Cline in Vegas, sequences that seem to exist only to give Thurman ample time to change costumes.

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