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School's Out! 

LTW tackles Charles Schulz's uncanny brilliance and empathy

click to enlarge You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at LTW.

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You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at LTW.

Folks talk about summer reads, which usually means books a little lighter in literary heft than those serious tomes we dig into when the nights get longer. Seems like the same sort of thing goes with theater, and often this theater-lite can appeal to all those school's-out kids parents are scrambling to entertain.

That's what Live Theatre Workshop has figured as they let their family-friendly musical You're a Good Man Charlie Brown take the main stage. The full-length show, based on Charles M. Schultz's long-running, classic comic strip, "Peanuts," features a bunch of kids dealing with kids' problems, like school, siblings, and friends with all their differing, and often difficult, personalities. They learn about life, and in that learning, they reflect to us not only our memories, but our adult world as well. Schultz, in each of his daily four-frame strips, brilliantly distilled a brief but resonating moment with insight, humor and a great understanding of—and sympathy for—our humanness.

So, here we have the very un-special Charlie Brown (Richard Gremel), and his little sister Sally (Cyndi LaFrese); insecure but very bright Linus (Gino Cocchi), holding tight to his ever-present blanket, and his older sister, the bossy, take-charge Lucy Van Pelt (Kaitlyn Fabry); the passionate piano-playing Schroeder (Steve Wood); and Charlie Brown's anthropomorphic pet dog, Snoopy (Michael Martinez), who often seems to have more sense (and more fun) than any of them.

The play is laid-out much like Schultz's strip would be, with short, self-contained scenes, and sometimes even quick snippets lasting only a moment or two. There's no plot or engaging story, just a series of scenes in which the various characters interact with each other, one-on-one or in a group. But each scene might give rise to a song, and it's really the songs that lift and carry the show.

Director and choreographer Samantha Cormier has done a good job of gathering a capable cast who are well-matched in skill and talent. Their collective energy makes the show utterly charming.

Really, who can resist the ever-hopeless but also ever-optimistic Charlie Brown, sitting alone at lunch, confessing that this is the worst time of day? As he lights up when he notices the little red-headed girl sitting not far away, he falls into the pain of indecision, wanting desperately to reach out to her but fearing rejection. This is the most neurotic kid ever, and we all recognize ourselves in him.

Then there's his little sister Sally, sweet, blond but full of existential angst as she reckons with the futility of her relationship with a jump rope. But, boy, can she make a good and forceful argument when confronting her art teacher about the grade she was given on her wire-hanger sculpture.

Oh, and that Lucy! Having a huge crush on the talented Schroeder who desires nothing of her unsubtle flirtations. Their number is priceless, he practicing with passion as Lucy improvises lyrics declaring her intentions of marrying a piano-playing man while he casts furtive, discouraging glances at her, but never missing a note.

Of course, there's Linus declaring his love for his blanket in the appropriately titled "My Blanket and Me." And Snoopy almost steals the show with his solo "Suppertime."

The group numbers also channel the sheer delight—and horror—of being a kid. "The Book Report" as the first act finale is ingenious, allowing each character's personality to emerge in their approach to the dreaded assignment.

This version of the show has been "revised," according to the credits, from the original with book, music and lyrics by Clark M. Gesner, to include additional dialogue by Michael Mayer and additional music by Andre Lippa. The production uses canned music that works just fine, and the other production elements—costumes, set, etc.—are certainly adequate if not totally inspired. Some of the voices on display are not really refined, but that works nicely for the kid characters. No, this may not be the best production of Charlie Brown you'll ever see, but it is full of joy.

This production is a part of LTW's Family Series, which used to be known as the All Together Theatre. Their goal is to produce shows that everyone, parents as well the kids, can enjoy together. LTW produces a full season of such shows in addition to their regular mainstage season, but the shows are generally presented just on weekends. Sometimes the shows are created by LTW staff members, and several of these have been published and are performed in theaters outside of Tucson. The group has announced an upcoming season of five shows, performing through next June. The program lists one as Dia de los Muertos The Musical, an original story with music by Michael Martinez (he of Snoopy fame.) Now that should be interesting.

In fact, LTW has an extensive education program, offering classes for kids of all ages. Their summer programs are very popular, and they offer a variety of classes throughout the year, taught by many of the folks we see in the mainstage shows as well as other respected theater artists in Tucson. As director of children's programming Amanda Gremel states in the program, "Theatre is a great outlet for children to be inspired to use their creativity and to open their minds to new possibilities." We can certainly get behind that.

There was something a bit curious to me surveying the audience. The show wasn't packed full of children. In fact, children were underrepresented, unless you count those folks well into their second childhood (or even their third.) This show should delight youngsters. Parents, bring 'em on. There are but a few shows left.

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