I started reading Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts as a kid, and I have never stopped. It's the only comic strip I still read for a number of reasons: memorable characters, humor, a little philosophy here and there. I feel a lot of nostalgia for the long-running franchise with funny storylines that never got old.
But what is iconic in the newspaper and in the animated television specials is hard to translate to the stage. It was always a terrible idea to sing Celine Dion or Whitney Houston on American Idol—it’s just too hard to come close to the original sound. Yet that is what is being attempted this week at Theatre Under the Stars in a production of The World According to Snoopy by Texas State University in association with TUTS’s Humphreys School of Musical Theatre.
The appeal of Peanuts (and Snoopy) is understandable. Who doesn’t love Lucy pretending to be a psychiatrist with no credentials, Linus’s unstoppable optimism for the Great Pumpkin and the spirit of Christmas, and Charlie Brown’s bad luck that is always balanced out by the funny comments of airhead Sally or earnest Peppermint Patty? Uh, no one. And Snoopy’s many moods (from anger to superiority to joie de vivre) accompanied by his adventures with sidekick Woodstock are always a winner. But all those things happen in snippets in a comic strip, or in a narrative arc on a television special, and none of those things happen in this musical production. The show is full of promising talent, but almost devoid of a coherent story.
Snoopy (well-played by the talented Ryne Nardecchia) is fun to watch as he sings and dances particularly well, capturing Snoopy’s expressions from the famous comic strip. But the songs make no sense for the most part, and don’t fit into a story, leaving the audience to watch a musical revue paying homage to certain stock situations one might remember if you were familiar with the comic strip. But these numbers could be done in any particular order, as there is no plot toward which they contribute.
Nick Eibler does a fantastic job of the physically demanding role of the non-speaking Woodstock, and stood out in many of the numbers. Maggie Bera nailed the spoiled mean-spiritedness of Lucy. But if this show is intended for younger audiences, it really didn’t explain to newcomers who these characters are. Even if you have a high nostalgia quotient for the long-running comic strip, there were a lot of notable characters missing. Remember Schroeder? Marcie? Pig Pen? Snoopy’s relatives?
The talent on stage is promising and, at times, fun to watch, but the writing is almost a caricature of a comic (if that is even possible) and the songs seemed out of sync with the trajectory of the lines. Sally singing about the baby-ish Linus as “Husband Material” was downright cringe-worthy, veering completely away from Schulz’s intention of dramatizing the innocent little crushes of these young characters.
Even moments that had a lot of comic potential (such as the school room scene with the WAH WAH WAH voice of the teacher) fell flat with tepid one-liners. Like a French film in which all the characters speak lines, but none of them connect, this show makes the familiar seem weirdly remote. Maybe some comic strips just don’t lend themselves to musical theater.
I liked the geometric stage sets, and the actors should be commended for bringing a lot of talent to really limited material. As Linus cynically (and uncharacteristically) says, “As the years go by, you learn what sells.” Yet this show seems strangely dependent on music and lyrics that either don’t make sense, or misunderstand what Schulz was trying to do as he dramatized these iconic characters.
With songs like beads on a chain, this musical didn’t offer any stellar songs that stay with you after the show. (I could have dispensed with the saccharine ones, like “Poor Sweet Baby.”) There were just a lot of moments that had no clear motivation, which may be a problem of audience: Is this show for kids, or older fans of the comic? Lucy scolds Charlie Brown, telling him that he “doesn’t have a personal philosophy.” That may be the problem with this show—lack of a clear trajectory, and thus an inability to connect with the audience.
Thru June 18. Tickets from $9.50. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2525. More info at tuts.com.