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A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS at Theatre of Youth brings 1965 TV animation to live performance

THE BASICS: A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, based on the story by Charles M. Schulz and the television special by Melendez & Mendelson, adapted by Eric Schaeffer, presented by Theatre of Youth, runs through December 17, Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. & 3:30. Added performance December 16 at 6:00 p.m. at the Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen Street. (884.4400).

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is, pretty much word for word and scene for scene, the annually broadcast TV special brought to the stage. A 3-person combo – piano, bass, and drums – recreates the famous music by Vince Guaraldi as the players wear costumes identical to the cartoon characters, speak the same lines, sing the same songs, dance the same dances as the original December 9, 1965 broadcast on CBS.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: As mentioned in previous TOY reviews, Artistic Director Meg Quinn doesn’t say to the young audiences: “Welcome to the Theatre of Youth.” What Quinn does say, deliberately, is “Welcome to THE THEATER” because this, for many in the audience, will be their introduction to live on-stage performances. At TOY, they take their mission seriously.

There’s a long history of adapting, for the stage, material that most of us grew up watching on television. This season we have, at other theaters, various takes on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the Capra movie annually broadcast on TV; A CHRISTMAS CAROL which, let’s be honest, few of us have actually read, but everybody knows from some adaptation ultimately broadcast, whether it’s the one starring Alastair Sim or Michael Caine and The Muppets. AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS originated as a new art form – a television opera. And talk about cartoons to live action, the list of Broadway shows based on animated features (for example THE LION KING currently as Shea’s) is as long as your arm. So, if you want to raise a little life-long arts appreciator in your family, this play could be a first step on that royal road away from electronics and into live theater.

If you want to raise a little life-long arts appreciator in your family, this play could be a first step on that royal road away from electronics and into live theater.

Quinn writes in the program: “Our 46th season of plays speaks to children about something always important in their lives: Identity. At the heart of each play is a character who finds fulfillment and acceptance for being who they are.” And that’s true for that perpetual “outsider” Charlie Brown.

Some charming aspects for both adults and children include three special effects which are revealed at the end of the show: how the players skate on real ice skates on a wooden stage, how the “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree” magically grows from its spindly self to a big fully decorated tree, and how stage snow is created. The sets are delightfully true to the original Charles M. Schulz artwork, and, at the end of each performance, children are invited to line up and have a picture taken on stage with members of the cast.

Kids get to have their photos taken with the cast of A Charlie Brown Christmas after every performance!

The musicians were very polished, and I would point out that in addition to Brian DeJesus on piano, and Paul Scottnik on bass, there’s Jamie Sunshine on drums. You don’t see women percussionists all that often, so that’s a possible inspiration for some young people.

Rating this show is difficult for three reasons. First, I personally can’t stand, and never liked, the Peanuts television animation with its saccharine cuteness. I’m trying to be professional here and put my personal feelings on hold. Second, I had forgotten how religious, or at least Bible-centered the show is. The basic premise of the show is that Charlie Brown doesn’t “get” the “true meaning of Christmas” until it’s ultimately revealed to him by Linus quoting from The Gospel According to Luke. And third, for whom am I rating this? For adults I’d give it two Buffalos. By trying to imitate the clunky 1965 animation on stage, seemingly frame by frame, the show just seems awkward. And plot? Wow. It’s thin. Really thin.

For kids, which is what this is all about, I’d give it four Buffalos.

But for kids, which is what this is all about, I’d give it four Buffalos. Parents, this will be only one of hundreds (thousands?) of events that you will attend on behalf of your progeny, from soccer games in the rain to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheez. So, bucko, suck it up and go. Because it will be one of those memorable moments, that, years from now, even if you only went to Theatre of Youth a couple of times, your kid(s) will someday say “Oh, yeah, my mom and dad used to take me to the Theatre of Youth ALL THE TIME. It was cool.”

The next shows in TOY’s season starting in 2018 are: THE BOY AT THE EDGE OF EVERYTHING, for ages 11+ about the stresses on over-programmed youth, January 20 to February 4; then JUNIE B. JONES IS NOT A CROOK for ages 6+, primarily for 1st and 2nd graders about 1st and 2nd graders, from March 10 through the 25th, and for the youngest audiences, STELLALUNA, for ages 4+ which runs next spring from May 5 through June 2.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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