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Currents: good grief!

Good Grief! A Behind-the-Scenes Look at 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown'

by Marc LeBourdais '07

The Sawyer Fine Arts Center has hosted many theatrical and dance productions, but it's been a while since there was a full-fledged musical production. This fall, the stage was transformed into the panels of a Sunday morning comic strip for the production of “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” a musical based on the comic strip series "Peanuts" by Charles M. Schulz. Fans of the comic no doubt recognized the set pieces, which looked as if they were pulled directly from their two-dimensional newsprint glory.

This production was directed by students Sarah Hayes '08 and Jillian Whitney '09, who also performed as Lucy Van Pelt and Sally Brown, respectively. Jerry Bliss, a professor in the Fine and Performing Arts Department, was the producer and artistic director, and shared his years of experience with the student-directors.

Though Bliss took on the director's role for the last week of rehearsals, for the most part he worked behind the scenes to ensure that the production went smoothly, and that the student-directors had all the resources they needed. When asked about the difficulties in translating a two-dimensional comic into a three-dimensional performance, he acknowledged that there were some concerns.

“[This material] is so recognizable, and everyone has their own ideas of how things should look - you try to respect that as well as your own artistic choices, while making everything that's on-stage seem authentic,” Bliss said, adding that the 1999 Broadway revival was a reference point for the production at Colby-Sawyer. “I've read the comic every day since I was a little kid, and my dad read it. I'm a 'Peanuts' guy! We - the student directors and I - tried to faithfully translate that to the stage.”

Bliss was no doubt pleased with the results, as the attention to detail was clear. To the far-right side of the stage, Lucy Van Pelt's psychiatric help booth looked just as it does in the comic strip. At center stage, the pitcher's mound where Charlie Brown is frequently defeated at baseball was rendered in full detail, right down to the errant blades of grass on each side.

Andrew Francis '11 played the titular character, and was quite excited for the opportunity. The freshman from Houston, Texas, performed in plays and musicals throughout high school, and has even sung opera. He has a notable affection for Charlie Brown, and little research was required for Francis to prepare for the role because it was his second production of the musical.

There is an inherent risk in putting a new spin on a widely-known and beloved character, and no matter how closely an actor plays the role or even resembles his character, there is the chance that an ardent fan will take some degree of umbrage with the final result. The performers in this musical seemed well aware of this, possibly no one more than Francis. Despite these concerns, he was optimistic that the end product vindicated any differences that emerged in the process. “It can definitely be daunting," he admitted, "but the musical goes a bit deeper into the character than the comics.”

Perhaps the only character more widely loved and recognized than Charlie Brown is his pet beagle, Snoopy. The challenge of this role fell to adjunct faculty member and Fitness Center Coordinator Pamela Sanborn. Much like Andrew Francis and Jerry Bliss, Sanborn holds a great affection for the comic strip.

“I'd been in a 'Peanuts' play in second grade,” Sanborn said. “I'm dedicating this performance to my brother, who was a 'Peanuts' fan and passed away a few years ago. This show is for him.”

Sanborn embraced her role as Snoopy with gusto. During rehearsals, when not in a scene, she lounged on top of the famous red dog house, very much in character.

Rob Wardwell '08, who plays the piano-playing wunderkind Schroeder, has performed in a number of productions here at Colby-Sawyer, though he was new to dancing, singing, and to "Peanuts." During rehearsals Wardwell joked, “I'm probably playing him all wrong.”

While the role proved a challenge for the senior from Lewiston, Maine, he showed the same level of dedication as the cast members more familiar with "Peanuts" lore. Still, he found some amusement in being the newcomer to the comics and to musicals.

“Having the rest of the cast during the musical bits really helps, since I don't have all that much experience with singing or dancing," he said. "I think I'm tone deaf. I can't dance, so really I'm the best sort of person to have in the cast.”

Wardwell's deadpan delivery seemed perfectly suited to Sarah Hayes' portrayal of the confrontational Lucy, particularly during the sequences when he played the piano as she unrequitedly fawned over him.

Hayes' previous experience on the stage was always evident, though this performance allowed her to flex multiple performance muscles at once.

“I have been begging Jerry to do a musical since I was a freshman. I love to dance, act and sing," she said. "With dance shows I can dance and act...and with some of the theater production I got to act and sing...but I never had all three together! This show allowed me to combine all my favorite things.”

Simultaneously performing on-stage and directing, Hayes and co-director Whitney had their hands full, making the final product all the more impressive. Hayes made no secret of the difficulties involved.

“It was a challenge. As a director the best thing is to watch...but when you're in it you can't watch and act. So it was difficult," she confessed. "But that's where Jerry Bliss really helped - he was my eyes. I would block things how I wanted and Jerry would help me fix parts, and Jillian would be another set of eyes, too. It was a group effort.”

This may have been the last time Hayes will grace the stage as an actor, though she will remain active in the college's dance club.

“As of right now, that was my final performance in the theater department. Sadly, with a full-time internship next semester and a large commitment as president of the dance club, I feel I would be stressing myself out by doing the show as well," she said. "I might help Jerry direct though...and some people are still trying to convince me to do one more show. Either way, I am proud that this was my last show here and thrilled to have had the opportunity to do it.”

Hayes' co-director, Jillian Whitney, also found her dual role a challenge, but an immensely enjoyable one. The junior from Rindge, N.H., was already very familiar with "Peanuts," and she cited the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” as her favorite part of the lore. “Charlie Brown and his little Christmas tree just melt my heart,” she said.

Because of this familiarity, Whitney found it easy to step into the shoes of Charlie Brown's outspoken little sister, Sally.

“Since I grew up reading 'Peanuts,' I already had a good idea about who Sally was and how she acted. In a way, or from what my family has told me, Sally and I have some of the same character traits. We can both be a little out there sometimes, so I felt like I would be able to really get into the character,” she explained.

Although Whitney clearly has a great deal of affection for the "Peanuts" gang, most of her excitement was centered on her first time directing. “I have always felt a great deal of satisfaction when I finish acting in a play," she said, "but being a director and actually seeing it through from the beginning to the end and having your vision come to life was an amazing thing to witness.

“Being a director, you feel a great deal of accomplishment when you see the final product, and being an actor you feel like you have been successful when you hear the cheers from the crowd," she added. "But since I have been given the opportunity to direct and act in this production, the sense of accomplishment that I feel really can't be put into words. I have enjoyed being able to both act in and direct this play because I had an amazing cast to work with, and an amazing co-director.”

The audience thought the production was amazing, too. Faculty, staff, college students and local families filled the auditorium for three nights to watch a little piece of their childhood come to life. Bravo, Peanuts gang, cast and crew!

Marc LeBourdais is an English major and currently works as an intern in College Communications at Colby-Sawyer College. He also took the photographs for this story.