You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

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Sheridan Harbridge, Laura Murphy, Mike Whalley, Andy Dexterity, Nat Jobe and Ben Gerrard. Photo: Noni Carroll

First staged off-Broadway in 1967, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is based on Charles M. Schulz’s legendary, long-running comic strip Peanuts with its group of anxious children and their beagle Snoopy, whose imaginary life includes being a World War I flying ace.

The musical comedy charts a day in the life of Charlie Brown told through a series of vignettes with catchy songs by Clark Gesner and Andrew Lippa (brought to perky life by musical director Michael Tyack and his four-piece band).

In keeping with the simplicity of Schulz’s drawings, Georgia Hopkins has designed a minimal set consisting of several drapes and a few set pieces including Schroeder’s piano, Snoopy’s kennel and a bench, while her costumes are instantly recognisable. Hugh Hamilton’s lighting brings plenty of colour to the simple staging.

Deftly directed by Shaun Rennie, the production boasts a cast of gifted comic actors who capture the wry, bittersweet humour of the piece so that it is charming but not too cutesy.

Interestingly, the York Theater Company experimented with a production, that ran off-Broadway in June, featuring relatively young children who had professional stage experience, some of them on Broadway. It led the New York Times to conclude that “this is a more demanding musical than you might remember” and that “there is a fair amount of complexity in these seemingly simple characters, which is why Charlie Brown is best when performed by adults, or at least by high school students.”

The adults in this Hayes Theatre Co production certainly find the emotional nuances in the characters.

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Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

At the heart of the show, Mike Whalley may not have the strongest singing voice but he is endearing as the lovable loser Charlie Brown. At times you want to hug him but his Charlie is no sad sack. Along with his loneliness and awkwardness, Whalley conveys Charlie’s resilient hope and droll self-awareness.

Sheridan Harbridge is hilarious as the forceful, super-crabby Lucy. Laura Murphy brings just the right heightened energy to Charlie’s indignant, stroppy younger sister Sally and her song My New Philosophy is a musical highlight.

Ben Gerrard as the smart, lisping, blanket-carrying Linus and Nat Jobe as the Beethoven-loving Schroeder are also spot on. Andy Dexterity (who does a terrific job as choreographer) stepped in late as Snoopy and does a commendable job though he still has more to find in his two big numbers.

Unfolding in a similar vein throughout, there are no great dramatic surprises but the musical is funny and gently touching. Children will find it accessible but the stronger appeal is the sense of nostalgia for adults looking back on childhood.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until July 30. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 9

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Pete the Sheep

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, March 29

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s new 50-minute musical for children, Pete the Sheep, is a real beaut show.

Based on the Australian picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, it tells a quirky story with a gentle message about difference, individualism and acceptance.

A new shearer called Shaun arrives in Shaggy Gully – but because he has a sheep-sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog like everyone else, the other shearers send him packing.

However, Pete knows just how to treat a sheep and quickly wins the favour of the flock. When Shaun gives Pete a fancy new look, the other animals (sheep dogs included) are soon lining up to be styled so Shaun and Pete open a shearing salon, inviting the shearers to join them.

Writers Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge have fleshed out the characters and added every pun imaginable, with plenty to amuse adults as well as the children, including the requisite poo joke. (You may never eat a Malteser in quite the same way again). The songs by Phillip Scott (who has written music and lyrics) are very catchy, with a nod to a range of styles from country to jazz, blues and a dash of Broadway.

Jonathan Biggins directs a lively, imaginative production on James Browne’s simple but highly effective set, which captures the feel of the picture book as it transforms from a corrugated iron shearing shed to Shaun’s salon, staged with a little extra sparkle for good measure, all beautifully lit lit by Matthew Marshall.

Dressed in shorts and singlets, the talented cast of four ­– Andrew James, Nat Jobe, Todd Keys and Jeff Teale – play sheep, sheepdogs and shearers morphing between roles with just a change of hat and a different physicality. They all sing, dance and act a treat and give very funny performances ­– though one bright spark in the opening audience wasn’t buying the fact that they were female sheep. “They’re not ladies!” he called out to general merriment.

Recommended for children aged four to nine, Pete the Sheep is a hugely entertaining show with heaps of humour and heart. So don’t be a dag, flock to it!

Pete the Sheep plays at the Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 24 and then on tour. Bookings: http://www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6