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Why the York Theatre Company cast young Broadway vets for its revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Clark Gesner's 1967 musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown -- a sweet and whimsical series of songs and sketches inspired by Charles M. Schulz's popular Peanuts gang -- was originally written to be performed by grown-ups. And yet it was inevitable that this hit show would become a staple of school and youth theatre programs. After all, the characters are all little kids (though they're grappling with some very adult issues like unrequited love, peer pressure, and alienation). Plus the myriad animated Peanuts TV specials turned them into a beloved and well-recognized family brand.
Yet according to Michael Unger, the director of the York Theatre Company's current revival of the revised 1999 Broadway edition (with additional songs by Andrew Lippa), this is the first time the tuner has ever been mounted professionally with youngsters. Of course these aren't your average tykes. Even though they only range in age from 9 to 14, all six boast Broadway credits and have résumés that would make grown-up grads of Juilliard exclaim, "Good grief!"
"I've long questioned why the show has always been done with adults behaving like cartoony kids," says Unger, who also serves as the York's associate artistic director and director of education. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to cast kids who are similar in age to the characters? They're not 5 or 6 of course, but they're much closer to that than the 1999 Broadway cast was [including Kristin Chenoweth and Roger Bart, who picked up Tonys for their turns as Sally and Snoopy respectively]. I thought that kids might have a more authentic connection to the material that would allow us to let the music and words speak for themselves a little bit more."
The idea was sparked last fall when Unger's longtime colleague and friend, Van Dean, produced a two-night concert of Charlie Brown at 54 Below starring Broadway kids. It was such a success, Dean suggested the York mount a full-fledged production. Four members of the 54 Below cast are reprising their roles: Joshua Colley (from Les Miz, Newsies, and that awesome MCC Theater Miscast rendition of "The Schuyler Sisters" from Hamilton) as Charlie; Aidan Gemme (Finding Neverland) as Snoopy; Milly Shapiro (Matilda) as Sally; and Mavis Simpson-Ernst (Evita) as Lucy. They're joined by Jeremy T. Villas (Kinky Boots) as Linus and Gregory Diaz (School of Rock) as Schroeder.
Although Unger hadn't seen the original concert, he was immediately intrigued. "I loved the idea," he remembers. "I work a lot with kids and because Broadway is the magnet that attracts talented children from all over the country, I knew we would be able to find an incredible level of skill." He also thought the show would complement the York's recently launched youth theatre classes, and could help enhance the 47-year-old company's audience. "One of my main jobs when I first came on board in February 2015 was to start the education program," Unger says. "It wasn't with an eye toward putting family fare on our mainstage or to shift the audience. However, when Charlie Brown came along it did seem to make a lot of sense. It fed into expanding our subscriber base and education program. I think any theatre needs variety to thrive. It's a bit of an experiment, a new type of show and audience for us, but something that is well within our mission."
Unger's instincts seem to be paying off. As someone who's frequented the York for more than 20 years, this was the first time I'd seen so many -- perhaps any -- children in the theatre, both onstage and in the audience. There's a giddy energy in the room as school-age kids (like my own 10-year-old daughter) sit starstruck watching their peers. That's not to say grown-ups won't enjoy this unique interpretation, too. "Charles M. Schulz had this amazing ability to filter his observant, universal philosophy through little-kid voices," Unger says. "Clark [who passed away in 2002 but had worked with both the York and with Unger] lifted directly from the comics in his songs and scenes. They're kids speaking to kids on one level, and adults on another at the exact same time. We all go through things -- trying times and relationship complications. I guess we're not satirizing the material as much as other productions might, since we have kids speaking the words."
That working-on-two-levels sentiment is wonderfully illustrated in Linus's big solo number "My Blanket and Me." Villas, who studies at the Alvin Ailey Dance School, does an impressive and moving pas de deux with his cherished inanimate pal, even though he's being pressured by his friends and family to give it up. "The same problems that affect Linus affect adults," Unger says. "Does he listen to the group or himself? Through the dance he realizes it's okay to have that blanket, that he's comfortable with where he is. In the end, he fantasizes about all of the other characters coming onstage with blankets. In the course of this one number, he goes through this roller-coaster of emotion."
Unger believes Charlie Brown is also cathartic for adults. "Telling this story with kids reminds us of our experiences as children," he says. "Putting this production together I remembered my first crush, my first disappointment, being teased in sixth grade. You don't lose that stuff. Those are primal moments. We see our history living out on stage."
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: Mavis Simpson-Ernst and Joshua Colley.