It all began in New York City. The year was 1967. “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” based on Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts grade-school comic strip characters, premiered Off Broadway and starred Gary Burghoff (that’s right, “Radar” from M.A.S.H.) as Charlie Brown.
After 1,597 performances, the show hit the Broadway stage in 1971 and spurred nine United States touring companies. A subsequent Broadway revival of the show in 1999 won several Tony awards, including Kristin Chenoweth for best actress in the role of Sally.
“You’re A Good Man” endures. The celebrated musical is at Bethesda’s Imagination Stage through mid-August. The show turned 50 last year, but the lessons about life, first love, siblings and friendship are timeless.
Kathryn Chase Bryer, Associate Artistic Director, said that despite the age of the show, “It doesn’t feel old. Even the music [holds up]!” She said director Aaron Posner wanted to “strip [the show] back, so he left the stage fairly open, except for a live pianist.” According to Bryer, Posner said, “Give me a stage that every kid in the audience would want to go on stage to experience.”
To make the show even more audience-friendly, “[Posner] took the 2.5-hour version of the script and cut it to an hour and five minutes, making the show very accessible,” Bryer said. She added that “the show has been very well received, due in part to that the actors, [all adults,] who are top-notch voices and actors in the area.”
She said, “At Imagination Stage, it is common for adults to play children and the actors play to the intentions and relationships established in the script without ‘acting like children.’”
It helped that the director and at least one cast member have experience as parents. They draw on this to create believability and inform the performance.
“The only role Aaron [Posner] wanted to cast to be a different age was the role of Snoopy, who [as a dog] stands out from the rest of the cast,” Bryer said. Posner choose Joe Mallon who is somewhat older than the other cast members.
For lead actor Christopher Michael Richardson (Charlie Brown), the show offers more than meets the eye. “It’s an awesome experience to introduce Charlie Brown to a new [generation] of children,” he said. “Our cast is reflective of the audience.”
“I overheard a child say, ‘Look. Charlie Brown is black,’ and I thought that was cool,” Richardson said, noting that “Imagination Stage is doing a killer job of diversity and equity.”
In addition, Richardson called the “reminders of hope and living in the moment” that his character brings to audiences eight times a week “amazing.” He said, “We don’t do a lot of this as grown-ups, so the adult audience members are very taken by this [aspect of the show].”
Awa Sal Secka plays Lucy Van Pelt. This is her third time being a part of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” In high school, she played Sally; in college, she played Lucy. This gives her particular authenticity as the slightly antagonistic “knowledge bank” that is Linus’ older sister. Secka rewrites the bossy, opinionated role of Lucy somewhat. Secka said Lucy is misunderstood. “She thinks she is saving people from themselves. She shares [her opinions] from a place of love.” When asked how she prepares for this portrayal, Secka laughed, “I think of how a person acts when they think they know everything.”
Secka finds the show is as rigorous as it it is fun. “I just came off playing Dorothy in ‘The Wiz, ‘which I thought was the hardest role I’ve played physically.” “But (choreographer) Tony Thomas really keeps us hopping,” Secka said, adding that Posner asks the actors to resonate at “the same frequencies as the children in the audience.” This energy leads the actors to interact with audience members during the show, further drawing them into the story.
Secka summed up the appeal of the show with this: “I commend Aaron [Posner] for blurring the line between nostalgic and new. This production of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ is both.”
“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” recommended for ages 5-plus, is on stage at Imagination Stage’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, through Aug. 12. Performances are at 10:30 a.m. weekdays, and at 1:30 and 4 p.m. weekends. Tickets, which start at $10, may be purchased online at www.imaginationstage.org, at the Imagination Stage box office or by calling 301-280-1660.