“If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”
- Charles M. Schulz
Ah! The Christmas season! A time for frantically shopping, decorating the house, attending holiday pageants and concerts, and generally working one’s self into a frenzy over creating the “perfect” Christmas experience. In our quest to achieve these goals, we often lose sight of the joy, warmth, and simple times that can bring us the greatest satisfaction. PEANUTS creator, Charles Schulz, understood that the foibles and absurdities of human behaviour are universal, and that laughing at one’s own folly is not only good for the psyche, but also for the soul.
On 9 December, 1965, television viewers were introduced to the first animated special featuring Charlie Brown and the gang. A Charlie Brown Christmas was an immediate hit, and the cartoon has become a staple of “gather-the-family” holiday viewing. Though most of us will watch the TV special at least once this year, I encourage anyone who loves it (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) to check out Chapin Theatre Company’s live-action adaptation. The stage play is almost identical to the original, with maybe a few lines changed here and there, but very few. Purists will be pleased, and others (like yours truly) will feel the excitement of a scavenger hunt when catching the occasional rewrite or added dialogue.
The story is so well-known, it hardly bears repeating, but just in case, here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charlie Brown is depressed at his mid-December inability to find the Christmas spirit, so he turns to his friends, most of whom are caught up in the commercialism and benign greed that was, over 50 years ago, already beginning to overtake the holiday. After an unsuccessful visit with Lucy at her Psychiatric booth (“five cents, please,”) Charlie Brown finds hope when he is invited to direct the annual nativity play. Tasked with finding a tree, Charlie Brown and Linus set out for the market, where they come across a sad, droopy, little tree. Recognizing a fellow outcast, Charlie Brown brings his glorified pine branch back to rehearsal, where it is ridiculed by the rest of the cast. Linus speaks a few words from the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus, and then further lifts Charlie Brown’s spirits by bringing everyone together to decorate the tree, which miraculously becomes a vision of beauty. (And yes, they all sing “loo loo loo, loo loo loo loo loo” at the end.)
Directors Meesh Hayes and Beth Strickland have created a beautiful homage to Schulz’s distinctive style, yet bring a few touches of their own to keep the story fresh. Kudos also to Costume Designer Tiffany Dinsmore for her nigh-upon-identical costumes that immediately evoke the cartoon, and Scenic Designer Bill Botts, who clearly went to great lengths to honour Schulz’s signature slightly wobbly line-drawing style, on everything from Snoopy’s doghouse to the 60’s “mod” holiday trees on display. This show and its spirit clearly aim to celebrate what inspired its creation.
An interesting side note: when auditions were held, all ages of children and adults were encouraged to audition, as Hayes and Strickland were open to a grown-up cast as well as a youthful one. In the end, the “teens and tweens” were chosen; a decision with which I heartily agree, having seen more than one fifty-something Linus dispensing wisdom to a Charlie Brown with slightly greying facial hair in various productions of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. This is not to suggest that adults can’t present an enjoyable evening with the PEANUTS kids, but seeing actors at or relatively near the characters’ ages added a specific twinkle of holiday cheer to the show.
The performances were uniformly solid, and I honestly bought into the show’s reality, essentially forgetting that these kids were born well after I graduated college. Audrey Thomas (Charlie Brown) and Michaela Grindstaff (Linus) make their trouser-role casting work beautifully, and while neither disguises the fact that they’re girls in real life, they embrace the characters with honesty and sincerity, making their actual genders immaterial. I saw Charlie Brown and Linus, period. They acted the roles as written, and succeeded. (I particularly loved the nod to the TV special, when Linus pronounces “…and they were so afraid” as “…and they were sore afraid.”) Lauren Bailey’s Lucy is just as cynical and hard-boiled as her comic strip counterpart, yet allows a touch of humanity to shine through. Juliana Mays (Sally) has only a few lines, but brings down the house when she asks Santa for money for Christmas, “preferably tens and twenties,” to be exact, and Skylar Raynor clearly has a blast in the role of Snoopy, with ever-faithful Woodstock (Ellee Burrows) in tow. The rest of the cast is talented, well-rehearsed, and maintain character(s) throughout.
By now you may be wondering “why go and see it if it’s the same as the cartoon?” To this I would answer that the stage play is professionally presented by an extremely talented group of young actors who deserve to be seen; a sentiment many seem to share, as a few upcoming performances have already sold out. It’s a bit of a drive out to the Firehouse Theatre (about half an hour from downtown Columbia,) but worth the trip.
On a personal note, I will add that the folks out at Chapin Community Theatre are welcoming, friendly, and proud of the work they’re doing. Before the show, I went to buy a hot chocolate, only to learn that credit/debit cards are not accepted. At the interval, a very kind lady asked if she could buy me a hot chocolate, apologizing for the lack of a credit card machine. That’s hospitality. That’s Christmas.
A Charlie Brown Christmas runs through this weekend, but you’d better hurry if you want tickets, as they’re going fast. Perhaps that’s because it’s not only a good production, but one that allows adults (and even some kids) to laugh at the qualities they share with Charlie Brown and the rest of Schulz’s assemblage of mini-adults. Merry Christmas, Mr. Schulz. You got your wish.
To reserve tickets, you can ring CCT on 803. 240. 8544, or email ChapinTheatre@att.net. . I saw “Cast Snoopy,” which features a few double-cast roles with “Cast Woodstock,” so if you’re going to see a specific actor, you may want to double-check the schedule.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER, and can be reached at FLT31230@yahoo.com