Hang on, Snoopy

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.

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.

The script really is terrible, but the music is dandy in A Closer Walk (big snaps to the tight five-piece combo led by Mark Mullino). All of Cline's hits are here: "Walkin' After Midnight," "Faded Love," "Lovesick Blues," "Always," "Leavin' on Your Mind," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and the unforgettable "Crazy" (the hit that launched Willie Nelson as a songwriter). Song after song, Thurman's voice is as sweet and warm as a shot of good bourbon. This woman can sing a bunch. But it sure would be nice to hear what she could do as herself for a change and not just as somebody's Patsy.

Audience response has been so positive for The Gift of the Magi, Classical Acting Company's elegant production of the O. Henry story, that the run at Richland College's Arena Theater has been extended through Christmas Eve. Reason enough to offer a few more words about a nearly flawless production of the best story ever written capturing the true spirit of giving at Christmas.

Dallas actor-writer Lee Trull has cleverly woven two O. Henry stories into the one-act play. The Gift of the Magi and Compliments of the Season brim with the ironic humor O. Henry was famous for, with delicate touches of mystery and sadness.

Jim (Steven Walters) and Della (Elise Reynard) play the young married couple so broke that they promise not to buy gifts for each other. It is December 1907, and Jim, a writer making $20 a week, keeps fragile Della's spirits up by telling her his fanciful new story about a millionaire's child who loses her favorite doll, and the three downtown toughs who find it and attempt to cash in on the reward. Della glows and giggles as Jim acts out Compliments of the Season (assisted by Emily Gray, showing great facility for accents as she plays several characters in the story-within-the-story). Poor as Job's turkey, Jim and Della own one great asset: their love. Which is why Della sets out with her meager savings to get Jim the perfect Christmas present. The sacrifice each makes to be kind to the other makes for a classic heartbreaker ending.

Directed by Matthew Gray, The Gift of the Magi keeps it all blessedly simple, never letting sentiment spill over into melodrama. The set by Jennifer Owen is stark and uncluttered. Costumes by Traci Kaplan evoke a shabby beauty. When the mellow strains of a cello (played by Dr. David Fray) waft into Jim and Della's sparsely furnished apartment and they glide into a slow waltz across their threadbare carpet, it's an aaaaah moment.

Everything about this production casts a spell. It's impossible not to get swept into the soulful message of, as O. Henry put it, "the Christmas part of the thing."

Cash Della has for Jim's gift: $1.87.

Ticket to this play: $17.

Feeling the real spirit of the season: priceless.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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