REVIEW: Charlie Brown fills Rep with nostalgia
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette
by Werner Trieschmann
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Sure, the stage adaptation of the 1957 animated classic, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which had its opening night performance Friday at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, is an unapologetic nostalgia trip.
The creations of "Peanuts" comic strip artist Charles Schulz -- Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Pigpen, their gang of dancing friends and even the mischief making beagle, Snoopy -- are brought to life in this note-for-note re-creation.
Directed with tremendous spirit by Anna Kimmell and buoyed by an infectious cast of teen performers, this "A Charlie Brown Christmas" does its part in wiping away the gloom of a pandemic that has kept live audiences away from The Rep.
The Rep responds in kind, pulling out all the stops with a lobby decked out as a Peanuts winter wonderland complete with live music.
This production demonstrates why "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has had such staying power. Supported by the jazz-powered score by Vince Guaraldi, Schulz's droll examination of the holiday season seems slight (the original special ran less than 30 minutes of TV time), but it has power that, in the end, seems greater than the sum of its parts.
The Rep production takes place on a stage that is framed by a large TV set. It begins with Snoopy (Melody Small) coming out and flipping through channels that feature clips with cartoon dogs from Scooby-Doo to Brian on Family Guy. Small's Snoopy is pure joy, a scene-stealer making the most of her time on stage, frustrating Charlie Brown trying to win first prize in a Christmas decorating contest.
It's probably safe to say that there's never been a Charlie Brown as tall as Simon Gess. Gess' height (which is accentuated when standing next to Walt Wenger's Linus) doesn't impede one bit his ability to make us feel for the sad sack Brown and his search for the meaning of Christmas. Gess' scenes with Lucy (a radiant and energetic Madison Courage Fleck) are especially sweet.
Gess and the rest of the cast -- decked out in spot-on colorful costumes by Hailey Eakle -- are wonders in executing the choreography (which has them even dancing in the stilted manner of the cartoon).
There are so many ways the tone for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" could be off -- too cloying or simply trying too hard -- but this one gets it just right. At the end, the entire cast is on stage singing Christmas songs.
The smile this induces will linger for a while.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" runs through Dec. 23 at the Rep, 601 Main St., Little Rock. For curtain times and ticket information, call (501) 378-0405 or visit therep.org. Covid-19 protocols are at therep.org/covid.