Curtains: Heartlight Productions' You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

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You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the first musical based on Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, is a warm-hearted, straightforward appreciation of the joys and challenges of being a regular little kid. Little kids in the audience tend to enjoy the scenes about lunchtime, Valentine's Day, romantic crushes, struggles with elementary school assignments like book reports and coat-hanger sculpture, and Snoopy the beagle (when he's a dog).

The other elements of Schulz's quirky, inimitable humor -- non sequiturs, '60s pop psych, existential angst, a beagle who's a WWI flying ace -- are lost on a lot of the young folks and also have a hard time reaching their adult targets when, for example, the kid sitting behind you sasses "Wutt?" after every blackout-closing line that he doesn't understand, and later, after apparently having been told those are jokes he doesn't get, switches to forced, raucous laughter over random bits of dialogue.

That's just a caveat -- many 21st-century kids are more practiced theatergoers, and I think children should have the opportunity to see this show; it has a lot to offer and, while they might not sit rapt, they'll have a good time. (Also, my earnest young neighbor cracked me up when he asked his companion, "That's funny 'cause there's no such thing as fish in a barrel. Right?")

The very short scenes, which contribute to the script's choppiness, are based on the structure of the daily Peanuts strip, and one thing you can definitely say about Heartlight Productions is that they get those actors right on and off the stage to minimize the hazards of "dead air."

Heartlight has taught performing arts in the Valley for a few years now, but this is only their second real production on an irregular schedule, so they're essentially a brand-new theater company. Charlie Brown's 1999 Broadway revival featured two new songs and some other rewrites, and this show is actually kind of a mashup of the older and newer scripts. Without going into a lot of detail, I'll just say that two of the actors' solos have been removed, and I'll assume we're all better off for it. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

The kids are played by adults, which is traditional for this show; that's part of what makes it work. Mandaleigh Blunt as Lucy is engaging and energetic, but she's just not crabby enough for me. (One of the best Lucys I've ever seen was a man in drag, but the role's within the range of many female actors, too.) Matthew Crosby is a cute and self-aware Charlie Brown. Between his huggable dorkiness and his iconic striped shirt, he is the touchstone that grounds the play and connects it to the audience, and we really feel his absence when he's offstage. Blunt and Crosby have charming singing voices, as well.

Kristina Rodgers is a sweet, funny, frisky Snoopy. It's a wonderful part, and Rodgers is all over it. The rest of the cast is a bit uneven, but they all do an adequate job, and if someone could wipe the symmetrically penciled freckles off Patty and dig up the play's real score for incidental music, this'd be a basically okay piece of community theater.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown continues through Saturday, June 5, at the chapel in building H of Bethany Community Church, 6101 South River Drive in Tempe. Tickets are $12 for people over 10 years old and free for kids 10 and younger; order here or call 480-217-7362.

Heartlight is reaching out to the community by sponsoring a free performance each week of this run; the next one is this Thursday evening, June 4, at 7:30 p.m. Contact Heartlight for reservations or more information; you can also find out about summer theater camp for students in grades 1-6, with the first session beginning June 15.

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