SUMMER THEATRE REVIEW: Happiness is a visit with 'Charlie Brown' and company at ECUBy William A. Peterson
Good grief, Nathan Lane! A charismatic canine threat is nipping at your heels.
The Tony-winning Broadway star, known for his singing, mugging and manic stage presence, arguably gets a run for his money by the wondrous Patrick Riviere in the East Carolina Summer Theatre production of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown." As Snoopy, Charles Schulz's black-and-white beagle who never met a bowl of food he didn't celebrate, Riviere is a howling, whirling dervish who dances with abandon, sings with verve and fairly explodes with unadulterated joie de vivre.
The doggone truth about the lighthearted musical comedy, which plays through Saturday at McGinnis Theatre on the ECU campus, is that it brings to buoyant, blissful life the familiar antics of the Peanuts gang. Director Marcus Olson's obvious fondness for the cartoon characters is evident by the care lavished on the project, from its carefully selected cast, to its colorful sets and costumes, to the split-second timing that guarantees laughs while evoking a sense of nostalgia and immediate recognition.
Based on the long-running Broadway musical, the show -- which at times brings the action into the audience -- is structured as a take-off of the Peanuts daily and Sunday comic strips. Each segment, now matter how abbreviated or extended, provides insight into the diverse personalities of the tiny tots whose world revolves around school, play and each other. There's Charlie Brown, the depression-prone quintessential loser whose clumsiness, social awkwardness and lack of confidence is offset by courage, tenacity and a heart of pure gold; Lucy, a bossy, power-hungry juvenile battle-ax with a sharp tongue, a knack for verbally destroying Charlie Brown and an unrequited passion for the piano-playing, Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder. Rounding out the group is Lucy's little brother Linus, whose mouth craves a well-placed thumb and whose hand requires a well-worn blanket; and Patty (a.k.a. "Peppermint Patty"), a feisty redhead with a fiery temper.
Amusing vignettes reveal snapshots of the daily drama in the characters' elementary school-centered lives. Charlie Brown pines for the enigmatic little redhead girl, then kicks himself over missed opportunities to make an impression. Lucy lounges on Schroeder's piano in a fruitless attempt to make a young-love connection. Linus, steadily tormented by his older sibling's fists and fables, finds time to sing the praises of his treasured blanket, while Snoopy sings loudly and fervently for his supper when he's not hunting rabbits or the Red Baron.
Marvelous musical selections -- enlivened by David Wanstreet's energetic choreography -- are interwoven to pump up the proceedings. "The Baseball Game" details the thrill of potential victory and the agony of sudden defeat on a small-scale field of dreams. "The Book Report" is a hilarious number that will appeal to anyone who has struggled with an dreaded deadline that just won't go away. The screamingly funny "Glee Club Rehearsal" features a mangled version of "Home on the Range" that must be heard to be believed.
Riviere is the paws-down standout, but everyone else delivers entertaining performances. Jeremy Woodard is quite funny as the quietly intense Schroeder, particularly while leading a glee club rehearsal and riotously composing a wildly creative book report. Rusty Ross charmingly embodies a gentle-natured, analytical Linus, while Arianne Ritchie is properly loud and sassy as Patty. Meanwhile, Lori Gardner creates a take-charge, laughable Lucy.
Jim Poulos shines in the pivotal role of Charlie Brown. He sweetly captures the angst-ridden, self-doubting qualities of the old "blockhead," as well as the character's stubborn commitment to his seemingly hopeless pursuits. He also heartily delivers the requisite "AAARRRGGGHH!" that Peanuts fans expect.
A quintet of behind-the-scenes marvels -- scenic designer Robert C. Alpers, costume designer Jeffery Phipps, lighting-sound designer Ken White, music director-conductor R. Scott Carter and vocal director Mort Stine -- help complete the total Peanuts experience. The orchestra also deserves praise for performing music that makes you want to get up and move.
A fitting, moving tribute to Schulz wraps things up in a low-key, understated way. It, and this show, prove that sometimes, good guys really do finish first.
IF YOU GO
"You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" will be presented at 8 p.m. through July 22 at McGinnis Theatre on the ECU campus. A 2 p.m. matinee also will be presented at 2 p.m. July 22. Tickets are $22.50, $27.50 and $32.50 for the general public; $20, $25 and $30 for senior citizens and ECU faculty/staff; and $10, $12.50 and $15 for youths and ECU students. Tickets are available in person from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and until 8:15 p.m. on performance dates or by phone with a VISA or MasterCard by calling 328-6829.