When the animated television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired on December 9, 1965, CBS executives held out little hope that it would be anything but a disaster.
It wasn’t just that the entire project was done on a shoestring budget. The show, written by “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz, had a tone and message that were anything but bright and cheery, with the title character suffering from depression brought on by the holidays – and greeted only with sarcasm and scorn by his peers.
In fact, nothing about the show was typical: The soundtrack was devoid of the standard laugh track, actual child actors voiced the “Peanuts” characters instead of the usual route of using adults or voice actors, and instead of familiar holiday tunes, the cartoon’s score was created by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.
The special, of course, garnered widespread audience and critical acclaim following that first broadcast, and in every year since has become as much an expected part of the Christmas holidays as more traditional elements.
Those who love both the special program (and who doesn’t?) and live theater will be happy to learn that in 2013, an official stage version of it was authorized by its producer, Lee Mendelson, and Schulz’s heirs.
Most will be even happier to learn that they can see this live version at Chance Theater through the end of the month.
Matt Takahashi, who plays Charlie Brown, calls the play “a nice homage to the classic.”
“I’ve always been a big fan of the special,” he said. “I’ve watched it for many, many years. It’s almost an annual ritual to watch it during the holiday season.”
While “very much just a faithful adaptation of the light sweetness of the story,” he said Chance’s staging of the play is plays up the light and “cartoony” aspects of the show and is not as dark as the original.
For Takahashi, exploring the role of Charlie Brown has been a wonderful experience. “He is probably more relatable as a character and as a person than a lot of traditional leading-man roles,” he says. “[Charlie Brown] has one of the deepest centers for compassion and empathy. When everyone talks about Christmas, he feels so out of place because for them it’s all about presents and other surface-level things.”
TRANSLATING THE CARTOON FOR THE LIVE STAGE
Eric Schaeffer’s adaptation hews closely to Schulz’s script, while pre-recorded tracks of Guaraldi’s now beloved musical score, so integral to the show’s success, are provided for any theater companies staging the live version.
James McHale, director of Chance’s production, sees “virtually no divergence whatsoever” between the live show and the 1965 special, noting that audience expectations “definitely” play a role in the choices for the design of the show.
“Audiences coming in know (the TV special) forwards and backwards, so they have certain expectations,” said McHale.
Wanting them “to enjoy what they love about the cartoon,” he said he “did the opposite of what you do as a director for any play that has a film version.”
“Usually, you’d say ‘no, don’t watch (the original).’ Here, I literally told them to watch it again and again,” then guided them to find “a balance between really capturing the essence of the cartoon, that which accounts for its sheer popularity, and wanting to follow their instincts (as actors).”
Acting-wise, McHale and his cast of 11 strived “to find a balance between something that feels true to the cartoon, but not just mimicking it, and something that pays tribute to its characters, style, tone and even its pacing.”
The physical language they are developing is intended “to capture the two-dimensional cartoon movements of the way the characters walk, gesture, move and express themselves.”
“We’re not trying to create a realistic version,” McHale said. “We’re really creating (a live) cartoon version of the animated show.”
He sees the Chance production as “a fun theatrical experience for the audience to be surprised” by – for example, “things that transform or pop out like a pop-up book.”
Designers Christina Marie Perez (costumes) and Megan Hill and Masako Tobaru (production design), he said, “created a whole world that supports” the cartoon-like acting style of the cast.
“Rather than try to make it a realistic version, it’s a realized cartoon version” created to “pay tribute” to the animated show.
Perez’s costumes are edged with heavy black lines, and McHale said he suggested to Tobaru and Hill that the props be flat, “like a cartoon or cutout, with heavy black lines drawn around edges.”
For example, when characters are ice-skating, the actors wear Heelys (wheeled roller shoes) with a flat skate cutout attached to the sides of the their shoes to reinforce the two-dimensional look McHale and company are going for.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” at The Chance is, McHale said, “wildly different” from any of the dozens of shows he’s been part of as an actor, director and instructor.
“To get to do a show that does that, or can do that, and still be true to what made it stylistically special 50-odd years ago is truly fun and special.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.