By Mark Dreisonstok
“Peanuts,” the iconic newspaper comic strip, was once a ubiquitous presence on the American popular culture landscape. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Charlie Brown, Snoopy and friends seemed to be everywhere, from lunchboxes to television specials, to books such as “The Gospel According to Peanuts.” A popular off-Broadway musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” was also produced, the initial run of which saw nearly 1,600 performances.
Falls Church High School’s Spotlight Theatre recently performed the musical, which wonderfully evoked childhood memories of “Peanuts,” along with memories of childhood – complete with its joys, insecurities and occasional frustrations. The performance not only succeeded in recalling such memories to mind, but was notable for outstanding use of a social-distancing format, talented singing voices and fine instrumental accompaniment. The show highlighted musical versions of vignettes familiar to “Peanuts” fans: Charlie Brown (Jack Kearny) unsuccessfully flying a kite and trying to manage a baseball team; Snoopy (Trip Jones) doing battle in the sky as the World War I Flying Ace against the Red Baron, with doghouse serving as airplane; and Lucy (Lucia Ku) in love with the pianist Schroeder (Jack Child), the latter focused on his love of playing Beethoven on the piano.
Each of the performers was quite good, with Kearney effectively channeling Charlie Brown’s signature balance of hope and frustration, Ku’s oblivious self-confidence as Lucy, and Child as Schroeder’s obsessive devotion to Beethoven — at one point, Child/Schroeder even held up a sign stating: “Only 14 More Days Until Beethoven’s Birthday!”
Most outstanding, however, was the production’s effective use of digital backgrounds, designed by eleventh-grade student Rania Ashoor. The designs were simple, yet colorfully drawn, suggestive of the Charles M. Schulz comic strip and yet distinct from it. Actual props were minimalist, yet very effective. An especially clever strategy was the use of between-scene edits, in which a following scene continues after displaying a stop-action frame of the previous scene — as if turning to the next page within a comic book, glancing at the illustration, then continuing to follow the narrative. This technique allowed the production to swim with rather against the present Zoom video conferencing current. The digital production method also allowed actress Dara Kearney, playing the tiny yellow bird Woodstock, to be digitally resized to appear much smaller than other cast members.
Especially remarkable was that the performances by the actors were actually done in front of green screens. Beth De Marco, director of drama at FCHS, faced the challenge head-on.
“Online streaming of play productions lacks the energy felt in the room during an in-person performance. I applaud those schools which decided to perform with masks on to protect all those involved in the production. Yet as an audience member, I found myself lacking in engagement midway through those productions when streaming from home,” De Marco said. ”By choosing this production of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,’ and having each actor perform alone in front of a green screen (singing, acting, and dancing) without masks, my hope was to bring audiences into a feeling of full engagement to what they saw and heard this past weekend.”
Musical direction and accompaniment also deserve high praise, with a professionally-performed jazz-tinged score referencing tango music (to Linus dancing with his blanket!), as well as Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” and — here we are sure Schroeder would approve — Beethoven’s opening to “Moonlight Sonata,” the second and third movements from his “Pathétique Sonata,” and key phrases from Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies. While this is not a typically Broadway musical, the cast was very successful in dancing those parts with panache which did resemble this format, such as the baseball team’s “T-E-A-M (The Baseball Game)” number, Snoopy’s Suppertime,” and the show’s staple tune “Happiness,” sung by the cast.
This reviewer was curious about the extent to which students know the original “Peanuts” comic strip, as the last original strip was published in 2000, the year “Peanuts” creator Schulz died and a few years before these talented young actors were born. Derek Castillo, who played Linus, had never seen the comic strip, while Lucia “Lucy” Ku is a massive fan, even to the point of learning the “Linus and Lucy” theme song by Vince Guaraldi on the piano. Most of the actors knew “Peanuts” not so much through the comic strip, but through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, and/or Christmas television specials.
In the past, Falls Church High School Spotlight Theatre has offered musicals as diverse as “The “Pajama Game” and “Into the Woods.” What is to be next on the Spotlight Theatre agenda? De Marco told the News-Press that, right now, this question is a difficult one to answer.
“If we perform before any audience or each other next fall, it will be with masks,” De Marco said. ”So what does that mean? A play that takes place in outer space? Or one in a hospital? Or should we just ignore the masks and not worry about it? Whatever it is, I’ll be reading a lot of plays and musicals this summer!”