Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in theatre knows that if your first dress rehearsal goes even the least bit well, there's cause for celebration. Having seen the first dress of the Quad City Music Guild's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown this past Sunday, I can assure the production's participants: There's cause for celebration, because things appeared to go considerably better than "the least bit well."
But it would be completely unfair to offer a review of the performance, because what I saw wasn't a performance - it was a rehearsal. A very good one, but a rehearsal nonetheless. Most of what was deficient about Sunday's show - the slow cue pick-ups, the distracting body-mic glitches, and, above all, the noticeable nerves - will, I'm guessing, be ironed out by the production's opening night on March 31, and for those who are involved with them, the great thing about rehearsals is that you're allowed to fail - rehearsals are where you make the mistakes you don't want to make during performance. Rehearsals aren't designed to be reviewed.
Having said that... .
What seemed to be missing on Sunday night was spark. There were a lot of very good things happening on the Prospect Park stage, but as of this initial dress rehearsal, they were mostly understated things, and this show needs a few more firecrackers going off; Music Guild's Charlie Brown was big on charm but lacking in vitality.
Director Harold Truitt, though, brings a lot of really clever touches to the familiar 'Peanuts" material, and stages some fantastic comic-strip tableaux; the images of Lucy sitting with her back against Schroeder's piano are especially good. (Like the best scenes in this Charlie Brown, they bring back happy memories of Charles M. Schulz's cartoons.) The production's over-sized sets are delightfully inventive; the set pieces are all just a little too big for the actors. (J. Adam Lounsberry's Charlie Brown was never sweeter than when sitting on the over-sized park bench, his legs dangling.) And the show's material, of course, gives Music Guild's production built-in appeal - it was hard to stifle a happy shiver when the gifted orchestra first launched into the show's signature "Peanuts" theme.
All the elements were there. Except electricity. As You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is less a book show than a revue - a series of blackout sketches in musical-comedy format - speed is of the essence, and this particular rehearsal felt a little draggy; the cast was performing the show well enough, but they weren't selling it yet. And they can. The six-person Music Guild cast sounds terrific together; the performers' voices blend beautifully, and no one voice is trumping the others - it's an excellent example of controlled ensemble singing. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown looks good, and it sounds good. Now it just needs to pop.
Certainly, some roles are easier to pop in than others. Charlie Brown is a pretty thankless character - he exists for the others to pick on - but Lounsberry nicely underplayed Charlie's downtrodden loser-dom, and had the kid's woe-is-me grimace down perfectly. He wasn't, though, especially believable as a child - or rather, he didn't quite seem to believe he was a child - but Lounsberry revealed his character's personality quirks well, and his singing voice was, as always, marvelous.
By contrast, Kevin Snell, as Linus, was probably playing his character's youth better than anyone up there; he was completely convincing as a sleepily content five-year-old. Yet he remained that way for Linus' solo number, "My Blanket & Me," which needed for musical-comedy razzmatazz than Snell was providing. (To be fair, though, the song may well be the show's least interesting one.) His characterization is working, though, Now Snell just has to run with it.
Nathan Bates, bless him, is more than running. He's leaping and crouching and growling. His Snoopy was delightfully physical, which should come as no surprise to anyone who saw his Music Guild performance in 2005's Beauty & the Beast. He came up with wonderful bits of comic business throughout the show; amazingly, he managed to steal scenes without being distracting. His "Suppertime" wasn't quite the show-stopper it was obviously designed to be, even with the Vegas lighting - the choreography, particularly during Snoopy's solo dance, is too step-kick repetitive - but Bates was, in general, terrific; once he fully relaxes into the role, he'll be even better.
One actor who already seems fully relaxed is Dan McGinn, as Schroeder; his was the most seemingly effortless, and perhaps most purely charming, performance I saw Sunday night. McGinn has a sweet, honest appeal, and he's shrewdly funny when he's staring Lucy down at the piano; he's also at the center of the musical's most energetic number, "Beethoven's Birthday," which features the production's most imaginative choreography. There's not a lot of room in Charlie Brown's conception of Schroeder for McGinn to explode in the part - as in Schulz's cartoon, he's probably the character with the vaguest personality - but whenever he gets the chance to come alive, as in "Book Report," McGinn is a kick.
Jenny Winn has perhaps the most vibrant smile of any local performer I can think of. (That smile is dazzling - it exudes pure happiness.) And she appears to possess loads of talent; her Belle, opposite Bates' Beast last summer, was everything you could have hoped for from the character. As expected, Winn is a live wire on the Prospect Park stage, and she's often sensationally funny; Sally's arguing her way out of a "C" grade was the show's comic highlight. (The rants and non sequiturs of Charlie Brown's little sister are the best argument for producing the 1999 revival over its 1967 forebear.) If I have a complaint, though, it's that Winn seemed almost too mean in the role; in this Charlie Brown, Sally often came off as less devious than malicious, and we already have Lucy for that.
When Jodi McGinn's Lucy cackles at some new prank pulled on Charlie Brown, her upper torso doubles over in blissful, hateful glee. It's the perfect physical embodiment of the mean ol' cartoon Lucy we all adore, and the gesture is complemented by a wonderfully nasty roar of a laugh; McGinn was a sensationally enjoyable Lucy, and looked like she was having a blast. I only wish she had attacked her vocals with the energy of her comedy, as I felt her backing off of the vocals - she seemed unsure as to whether she pulled them off or not.
But let's remember, she was allowed to be unsure - it was rehearsal. As of Sunday, the show seemed in very good shape. What's needed now - and what I imagine has subsequently happened - is for the actors to realize their show is in very good shape; the only thing that really kept You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown from sailing on Sunday night was a lack of confidence, a quality I hope, and expect, the talented Music Guild ensemble will have no trouble finding by opening night.