You have to figure that “The Peanuts Movie,” which opened in theaters earlier this month, will introduce a new generation of little kids to the characters created by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.
If so, then the Coterie should benefit from impeccable timing with its lively production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a stage play by Eric Schaeffer based on the 1965 holiday television special. Anyone who saw that show knows that Vince Guaraldi’s light piano jazz score took up permanent residency in unsuspecting viewers’ memories.
The Coterie production plays into that reality by placing a live jazz trio onstage. Pianist Gary Adams, who is also the show’s musical director; percussionist Sam Wisman and bassist Jeff Harshbarger perform Guaraldi’s music without messing around with it, but the play also includes versions of “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” And Adams provided an original piece, “Snoopy’s Christmas.”
The stage version follows Schulz’s television script faithfully. The title character, turned off by the commercialism of the holiday season, ultimately learns that there is redemptive meaning in Christmas.
Director Jeff Church made smart choices in casting the show. He found actors who could capture the essence of the characters without trying to replicate them.
Georgianna Londre Buchanan’s brightly colored costumes capture the general look of the characters, but each actor brings his or her own energy and chemistry to the show. Matthew Lindblom, for example, plays Pigpen with a physical presence that doesn’t look much like Schulz’s original, but he has fun with the role, teasing his hair into a fright wig that occasionally releases puffs of “dust.”
Donovan Woods appears to have even more fun as Snoopy, a character with no dialogue who nevertheless dominates sections of the show. Woods brings his formidable dancing and acting skills to the role. At the Saturday matinee he also performed a nice little epilogue about Snoopy and the Red Baron.
Lexi Morris finds ways to soften some of control-freak Lucy’s hard edges while also blowing her into a larger-than-life character. Tony Pulford is particularly effective as Linus, the kid with the permanent security blanket, who ultimately explains to Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about.
Steven Eubank plays the title character, who, as he was in the comic strip, a sort of unformed personality; yet Charlie Brown also becomes a symbol of existential angst. Eubank smiles too much for a kid contemplating the futility of existence, but his performance is solid. So are those delivered by the players in what amount to supporting roles — Rachel Brennan Leyh as Frieda; Vincent Wagner as Schroeder; Ai Vy Bui as Violet; Sara Kennedy as Sally and Connor Relyea as Shermy.
Scott Hobart’s scenic design consists of minimal two-dimensional cartoon-like images and serve the play well. The show runs about 60 minutes.
There are other stage versions of the “Peanuts” characters but I found myself thinking about a dark, unauthorized satire called “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” Bert V. Royal’s speculative projection of the problems the “Peanuts” characters would likely deal with when they become angst-filled teens. (Eubank, by the way, directed one of two local productions of Royal’s play.)
It might be interesting to stage that rather grim show in repertory with this cheery evocation of Schulz’s beloved characters, who remain frozen in time, destined to be children for eternity.