Saturday, May 25, 2013

Music Review: You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown - 1999 Revival Cast Soundtrack

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Funny songs sure to make you laugh if you like Peanuts
Cons: Ilana Levine's voice, "My Blanket and Me"
The Bottom Line:
Updated soundtrack
Classic show gets a new life
Peanuts fans rejoice

My New Philosophy?  You Need This Charlie Brown Soundtrack

In 1999, Charlie Brown finally made it to Broadway.  If I have my history straight, the original production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown was off-Broadway.  Unfortunately, this revival didn't last long after it lost the Tony for Best Musical Revival even though Kristin Chenoweth won a Tony for Best Supporting Actress for her star making role as Sally Brown.  Yeah, I know, whatever.  The point is, this show's short life was a real shame because, based on the soundtrack, it must have been a pure delight.

For those not familiar with the musical, it follows a day in the life of Charlie Brown, the main character in Charles Schulz's classic comic strip Peanuts.  There is no real story; each scene tells its own joke.  The same holds true with the songs.  You can listen to this soundtrack without seeing the play and not miss a thing.  In fact, I bet you would still enjoy it even if you didn't know the characters, although knowing them certainly does help.

This production made some changes from the original cast recording.  It uses a small orchestra to flesh out the sound of the music.  It sounds great, too.  They also tweaked the arrangements slightly, giving the entire thing more of a pop feel.  The result is songs that today's music lovers will absolutely enjoy.

They also took out Patty, a character who hadn't been in the strips for years (I'm guessing she was gone by the time Peppermint Patty was introduced in the 70's.) and added the previous mentioned Sally Brown.  Plus they wrote two new songs to give Sally and Schroeder chances to shine.

Schroeder's song is "Beethoven Day."  The majority of the six person cast is actually part of the song as Schroeder sings of his desire for a national holiday to celebrate his hero.  Of course, he does fear that it will become too commercialized, and the other's ideas of newspaper ads and bake sales start to worry him.  It's a fun, upbeat number that is easy to sing along with.

However, arguably my favorite song in the entire musical is "My New Philosophy," the song added for Sally.  In this three minute number, she changes her life philosophy four times, much to the annoyance of Schroeder who seems to think that anything lasting should take some time.  What does he know, right?  There are lots of funny lines here, and the upbeat melody is very catchy.

Of course, the classic songs are here as well.  A favorite from these is "The Kite."  Poor Charlie Brown spends two minutes trying to get his kite to fly.  This is a great example of how they've changed the music for the better.  While it still has a strong piano base, the strings in the background (and wind sound effects) really make things much richer.

The ensemble numbers are some of the best again.  "The Book Report" never fails to make me laugh as Lucy, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Schroeder take very different approaches to writing a book report about Peter Rabbit.  Lucy just recaps the plot, aiming for exactly 100 words.  Schroeder gets sidetracked talking about Robin Hood.  Linus prepares a doctoral level dissertation on the book.  And Charlie Brown?  He puts it off until the last minute, stressing about it the entire time.  (If there is any doubt why I call myself Charlie Brown this should help explain why.)  The four characters go back and forth, so it takes a concentrated listen the first couple of times to fully follow the song.  And they do add the other two characters, Snoopy and Sally, to the background as they go about chasing rabbits.

All six characters sing in "Glee Club Rehearsal."  While Schroeder is trying to get the rest of the cast to practice an a cappella version of "Home on the Range," Linus has taken Lucy's pencil to keep her from telling Sally what Linus called Sally.  And don't worry, Snoopy just hums along.

They actually do a good job of letting Snoopy talk to us without talking to the rest of the cast.  "Snoopy" for example, is a solo as he sings about how great his life is.  It's a nice slow number most of the time.  There is one part where he becomes a vicious jungle creature, and the music ups the dramatic, adding to the humor.

His other song is "Suppertime," the big production number.  This song comes the closest to Snoopy and Charlie Brown interacting as Snoopy gets all excited when his suppertime comes.  But we can just assume those one or two lines actually are just said to us.  The song itself is fun.  The words are minimal, but it's got a great jazz feel complete with sax.  You can almost picture Snoopy doing a soft-shoe routine to it.

And of course, there's the final song.  "Happiness" is a quiet song as the gang sing about the simple things in life that can make someone happy.  It's one of the slower numbers on the disc with plenty of strings.

As much as I love this disc, there are a couple of flaws.  Linus' song, "My Blanket and Me" just doesn't translate well to a soundtrack.  Much of the song is Linus dancing with his blanket.  It just doesn't hold up quite as well as the others to repeated listens.

Then there's Ilana Levine's voice.  She plays Lucy, and tries really hard to capture the character with her voice.  For the most part it works; she certainly sounds like I would picture Lucy sounding.  However, Lucy has the most demanding vocal score of the musical.  And when she has to hit those higher notes, it just becomes too screechy.  You can notice it a little bit on "Schroeder" and "Little Known Facts."  But where she really falls apart is at the end of "The Doctor Is In."  Granted, I have yet to hear someone not struggle for those notes at the end, but the effort here is cringe worthy.

A definite bonus to this version of the soundtrack is the booklet that comes with the CD.  It's got a complete credits list, a bit of background on this version of the musical, photos of the cast in character, and then all the words, including who is saying them.  That really does help on a couple of songs when the characters are talking or singing over each other.

I have always loved Peanuts, so I can't help but love You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  For my money, the 1999 Revival Cast recording is the version of the soundtrack to get.  You'll find some new laughs and contemporary arrangements of all your old favorites.  What's not to love?

Anthony Rapp - Charlie Brown
Roger Bart - Snoopy
Ilana Levine - Lucy
B. D. Wong - Linus
Stanley Wayne Mathis - Schroeder
Kristin Chenoweth - Sally Brown

CD Length: 47:18
1. Opening/You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
2. Schroeder
3. Snoopy
4. My Blanket and Me
5. The Kite
6. The Doctor Is In
7. Beethoven Day
8. The Book Report
9. My New Philosophy
10. T-E-A-M (The Baseball Game)
11. Glee Club Rehearsal
12. Little Known Facts
13. Suppertime
14. Happiness
15. Bows

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