It’s that time of year again where we are bombarded by advertisements to buy the latest and greatest gifts for loved ones. It’s also that time of year where every television network has a holiday special airing any given day of the week between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like many adults my age, I grew up watching almost all of the holiday specials (because it was either watch what everyone else was watching or go read in another room). I’ve always enjoyed the Burl Ives’ stop-motion Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964), Chuck Jones’ animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and the Rankin/Bass’ animated Frosty the Snowman (1969). While some of these specials have had the same message or meaning for me over the years, one in particular has changed over time, and that’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). After seeing Parkland College’s live action version directed by Latrelle Bright, I have another layer of perspective to mull over this year.
Based on the television special by Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson and adapted for the stage by Eric Schaeffer, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost a one-to-one dramatic presentation of the special. There are a few minor additions, but instead of distracting from the pacing, the added to the overall message of the special. There is also the added bonus of a three piece pit orchestra covering the music of Vince Guaraldi and his Trio. Add to this mix an amazing cast and production crew. A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College is something you must see.
Stepping into the world of the Peanuts gang is easy thanks to the design of the set. The left wing serves as the gaudy yellow and pink Christmas tree lot. The right wing safely secures the pit orchestra who have an easy view of the stage. This choice was important for when Music Director and pianist Justin Brauer and actor Cedric Jones as Schroeder needed to work in unison to “play” the piano together. The rest of the stage is a massive set piece of snowy tiers. Even Linus and Charlie Brown’s snow-covered wall is included. Scenic and Lighting Designer Nicholas E. Shaw and Light Board Operator Jeff Thompson captured a cloudy but bright snow day for the gang as they skate across the main stage in the opening scene. Also, whoever had the bright idea to include snow (Ivory soap shavings) is a genius. The cold blast from the snowmaker and fans gently blowing it out to the audience left some of us with smiles.
The rest of the crew brought their A-Game to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sherri Doyle with the assistance of Quentin Jones and Amber Sarno made sure everyone was dressed as their character. Charlie had his classic yellow shirt and black zig zag stripe. Linus had his precious blue blanket. Lucy and the rest of the girls had large, padded bows on their dresses. Saddle shoes were abundant. Mallory Herges and Erin Roux added the finishing touches to the characters with hair and makeup. The props by Jessica Debolt and others were also exceptional. Pieces were smoothly moved on and off stage without a noticeable hitch. With how short the time was between scenes, they had to be quickly moveable. Snoopy’s red dog house and Schroeder’s piano stood out as prime examples of larger pieces being moved quickly and easily, and visually they looked great. Stage manager Yen Vi Ho and everyone else kept things running smoothly throughout the night.
From the start, you could tell that all of the actors were very comfortable in their roles. David Howie as Charlie Brown perfectly captures the lovable, perpetual loser with a good heart and spirit. His Charlie isn’t too mopey or unexpressive. Without any dialogue, David Heckman as Snoopy had his work cut out for him. However, he captures the loyal yet troublesome fighter pilot ace's, I mean dog’s, spirit. After Snoopy’s barrage of animal noises at Lucy, a child somewhere in the audience enthusiastically said what we were all thinking: “He’s really funny!” Madelyn Childress as bossy Lucy is wonderfully obnoxious, loud, and expressive. Childress may not be an animated character in reality, but she does a great job of portraying one onstage. Lukas Mills as Linus, the ever serious philosopher, supporter, and friend of Charlie Brown, paired beautifully with Howie visually. I found his ability to wrap Linus’ blanket around his head quickly to become a shepherd impressive and his straight-forward recitation of Linus’ speech particularly moving. However, Philip Meadows as Pig Pen was probably my favorite bit of casting. He looked exactly as you would imagine the character would in real life - a happy kid who doesn’t see anything amiss about how he looks. He has his overalls and his boots, and he’s set to make a snow (in his ever present cloud of dust). Visually, Meadows is older than most of the cast, but in a way, his age was masked by his acting so you believed he was good ol’ Pig Pen. Everyone else in the cast - Cedric Jones as Schroeder, Jenny Gleason as Patty, Prince Robertson as Shermy, Erin Kaufman as Violet, Tafadzwa Diener as Frieda, Tyler Cook and Jacque Crossett as part of the ensemble - obviously enjoyed their roles. There were no noticeable jitters or flubs. Everyone seemed very comfortable with their roles, which led to great performances by everyone. Watching the play, you really felt like you were seeing Charlie, Linus, Lucy, and everyone else from the Peanuts gang.
As you might have read in Rebecca’s preview article, Director Bright wanted to add some more love to the original special. Two notable moments happen during the play that aren’t in the televised special. The first moment is of a boy and girl sharing a $1 bill left on the ground. Rather than one of them claim it, the bill is ripped in half and shared between the two of them. The second moment is of Pig Pen (Meadows) sharing his mitten with one of the female cast members. These quiet moments without dialogue helped to promote the overall message of goodness of the special and play. When the play was done, the cast invited the audience to sing along in “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which most participated in. There was also a post-play photo opportunity with the cast for families and children walked away with a special treat. For me, the treat was in the music.
A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t complete without Vince Guaraldi’s music to accompany the action. With a three piece pit orchestra, Justin Brauer on the piano, Chris Beyt on the standing string bass, and Zachary B. Bowers on the drums the Guaraldi Trio to life. Since we all know the Peanuts theme (titled “Linus and Lucy”), it can be hard to play what’s written on the sheet. Jazz is like that sometimes. You may have heard a song a thousand times, but that may not be how it’s actually written. So, you fight this urge to play the song how you have heard it, to learn it, and then you let yourself find your groove. Brauer, Beyt, and Bowers did a great job of working together to keep the tempo of the songs up and fun. Since I’ve only ever played these songs on the piano, it was a delight to hear them in person by a band.
If you haven’t guessed by now, A Charlie Brown Christmas should be on your “must see” list this year. You can catch a snowflake at A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College. The remaining performances are: Fri. Dec. 9th and Sat. Dec. 10th at 7:30 p.m. and Sat. Dec. 10th and Sunday Dec. 11th at 3:00 p.m. Since opening night and the Sun. Dec. 3rd matinee sold out, I highly recommend reserving your tickets by calling or e-mailing the Parkland Theatre box office before you go. Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for students or seniors, and $9 for youths.
All images by Stephen Kemp.
Sarah Keim is a contributing writer to Smile Politely’s Arts section. She's a bit of recluse on social media, but you might bump into her out in the wilds of C-U. Frequent sightings occur at you-cut Christmas tree farms for free cocoa and at the mall buying video games for herself.