First Stage enters the holidays with a production of the beloved A Charlie Brown Christmas. The impressive Martin McClendon set at the Todd Wehr Theatre brings the ancient comic strip and animated show to life with Jason Orlenko costuming the cleverly pulls flatly rendered mid-20th century comics characters to vivid life.
Director Jeff Frank brings together a very well-articulated mood from the old animated TV special that amplifies the depth of the emotions for the live stage. Music Director Paul Helm fuses the pleasant sentimentality to the beloved scoring of the old Charlie Brown TV specials. The choreography of Chris Feiereisen cleverly takes the overly simplistic 1960s made-for-TV cel animated Peanuts dances and bring a them to comic life onstage. Seeing actual actors dance like awkward animation never gets old.
I saw the show with my kids. (Both are in grade school.) Charles Schultz' work was very old and outdated when I was their age. I was skeptical of the show's appeal to a generation growing-up with weird crafting videos and the offbeat strangeness of LD ShadowLady. Much to my surprise, my kids loved Charlie Brown . Yes: grade schoolers who are very savvy and into very contemporary pop culture from strange corners of YouTube can still find appeal in something from the mega-pop mid 20th century. To them it plays like something out of another world that speaks to ideals that get to the heart of the season. There’s a weird almost avant-garde feeling in shredded plastic bags becoming snowfall onstage. There's a dreamy surrealism in strange visions of J.T. Backes dressed like an anthropomorphized Snoopy in a World War One Ace fighter pilot fugue. It works on levels that don’t have to be explained to kids. They know it’s fun even if they might not know what it is that they’re seeing onstage.
I saw the show with my family on the opening performance with the “Sparky,” children’s cast. (Which rotates with the “Schultz” cast through the run.) Nolan Zellermayer plays the title role of Charlie Brown in a thoughtful sadness. There’s a real sense of fatigue and frustration in his performance as he deals with friends and family who are far too into the commercial end of the holidays. Alice Rivera is casually stunning as little Lucy Van Pelt, who always came across as slightly annoying in the cartoon and comic strip. Rivera grants Lucy a Grace which makes her opinionated confidence that much more appealing than it typically comes across. Schultz's strangely prognosticatory observation on that state of current healthcare system comes across quite whimsically between Zellermayer and Rivera as the money-loving psychiatrist Lucy demands payment up-front from her client Charlie...clearly more concerned about the money than the client who handed it to her.
The show is based on a TV special from 1965. It’s strange to think that Schultz’s lamentations on the commercialization of Christmas would came out of the mid-1960s. Stan Freburg had expressed similar concerns a bit further back in the late 1950s. Schultz’s kids fare may not be a sophisticated or controversial as Freberg’s “Green Christma$,” but it’s always to find serious criticism of capitalism in kids fare. It still feels remarkably resonant decades after it was first broadcast through cathode-ray tubes all over the country on CBS.
First Stage’s production of A Charlie Brown Christmas runs through Dec. 26 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater on 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit First Stage online.