The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s new production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And that’s a good thing.
Co-conceived by Nick Cearley and Lauren Molina, who play Linus and Lucy, respectively, Charlie Brown is a musical fantasia that features beloved “Peanuts” characters in a series of vignettes about the joys and frustrations of childhood.
From the first seamless lighting cue to the very last, shivers-down-your-spine blackout, Charlie Brown plunges into the timeless space of Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip “Peanuts.” Hosting the familiar favorites — Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Snoopy and Patty — this production doesn’t shy away from the innocence of childhood. At the same time, it doesn’t ignore the astute nature with which children form their values, either. Because of this concept, formed by director Bill Fennelly, Charlie Brown never feels like an insincere take on childhood but rather a celebration of it.
Many short sketches and eccentric musical interludes comprise this production, which feels like a “Peanuts” variety hour. But it’s the moments of introspection, offered mainly by the titular Charlie Brown (Rob Morrison), that bring substance to the production.
This show doesn’t work without the exceptional commitment to the characters, and each performer brings an essential truth to their portrayal that never feels forced or disingenuous.
Morrison brings a familiar melancholy to Charlie Brown that is both heartbreakingly forlorn and enthusiastically encouraging. This stands in stark, and hilarious, contrast with his arguable foil, Lucy. Molina brings an exceptional intensity to Lucy that works because of her steadfast commitment to the character’s bombastic nature. But Molina’s intensity is balanced out wonderfully by the low-key and sweet sincerity that Stephanie Ann Johnson brings to sidekick Patty.
This balance among characters is essential in Charlie Brown. And though each has a breakout moment, Charlie Brown is ultimately an ensemble show.
Each actor/musician marches around the stage, playing a variety of both conventional and quirky instruments so expertly that it can be easy to forget that the music is being made in real time. And each brings such a fierce gusto to their characters that it truly feels like watching cartoon characters spring to life onstage.
The standout of the group is the rambunctious and delightfully shrill Lucy. But every actor is so stunningly talented and performs so effortlessly that the production feels like watching a group of friends jam and fool around together.
As Snoopy, Armando Gutierrez has several show-stopping moments as well, turning the most routine concepts into moments that bring the house down. Gutierrez is, perhaps, the final ingredient necessary to bring out the show’s cartoonish hijinks.
As Linus, Cearley adds vital insight to his adorable character, a child who is wise beyond his years but, at the same time, clings to his faithful blanket for the security it brings as he navigates life with an overbearing sister and ragtag group of rambunctious personalities.
Brett Ryback, as Schroeder, is the most “grown up” of the group. Yet even as he tenderly plays unappreciated Beethoven, Ryback highlights a dynamic sassiness in the prepster.
Morrison’s soft undercurrent of strength ties this production together. Charlie Brown is a character that makes room for others to shine alongside him, and that trait is no more clearly apparent than in the Playhouse’s production.
Throughout the symphony of acoustic guitar, cellos and a never-ending supply of kazoos, the set, designed by Michael Schweikardt, provides a detailed reminder of the history of these characters. With subtle zigzags that mimic Charlie Brown’s iconic yellow and black T-shirt, an impossibly smooth rotating stage and a whimsical cluster of music-room instruments, the set becomes as important as the actors onstage.
The Playhouse’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is a tour-de-force, not only for the co-conceivers and musical arranger, Michael Holland, but also for each and every actor and musician that graces the stage.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs through May 18 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (962 Mt. Adam Circle, Mount Adams). More info/tickets: cincyplay.com.