A new First City Players production is set to debut next week, bringing to the stage an upbeat and musical take on classic comic strip characters.
In a Thursday interview with the Daily News, FCP Executive Director Elizabeth Nelson said that “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” was just the show she was looking for this summer.
“I was looking for something that met our criteria,” Nelson explained. “One, it had to have a small cast. Two, I wanted something that was absolutely, completely and totally family-friendly. I wanted something that would lift spirits, and this particular show just ticked every single box.”
The show also doesn’t require many sets or costume changes for the six-member cast and small backstage crew.
The cast brings to life six of the Peanuts characters first brought to life via comic strips by illustrator Charles Schulz. Performers include James North in the role of titular character Charlie Brown, Dani Steepe as Lucy van Pelt, Peter Epler as Linus van Pelt, Amanda Glanzer as Sally Brown, Niles Corporon as Schroder and Dani Pratt as Snoopy. The show also features a small cameo appearance by Epler’s daughter, Addy.
Bridget Mattson, along with Clare Bennett, have directed choreography for the show, while Deidra Nuss served as the musical director.
Nelson said that at the time of auditions earlier this year, local uncertainty about the coronavirus potentially caused some FCP regulars to shy away from the stage.
However, “We had enough people, we had more than enough people,” Nelson said of the audition turnout, which resulted in a cast rounded out with some returning performers and fresh faces. “... And I ended up with a cast that I’m really, really happy with.”
And that cast has been working on bringing classic Charlie Brown moments to life on the stage during rehearsals for the past three months.
“Where most shows have a throughline story — there’s a plot — this show is really more like the comic strips themselves,” said Nelson. “Where we will have a short little story — it definitely tells a story — but it’s over when it’s done. A lot of them are told in musical numbers. It’s really lighthearted, so to me, it’s perfect for where our world has been recently.”
The cast — all of whom were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus when rehearsals began — have still been proceeding cautiously amidst rapidly changing local guidance.
“We of course have gone through all of the ups and downs of the last two weeks,” Nelson said. “It’s like everything else in this past year. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
But Nelson hopes that “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” can bring some positive reviews from local families.
“It’s just something that you can go to with your entire family and come back loving everything about it, everything about the world,” she said.
For cast member Dani Steepe, the lighthearted production is her first FCP credit.
“It’s so cute, it’s so funny,” she described the show. “It’s really precious. It’s just a day in the life of Charlie Brown.”
Steepe plays Lucy van Pelt, and although she hasn’t ever participated in an FCP show, she isn’t new to the world of theater.
“It was something that I did when I was younger,” Steepe told the Daily News on Thursday afternoon. “I did musicals in fourth- through eighth-grade, and then I opted to go down the road of athletics instead of musical theater. And I played softball in college, actually, but now my competitive sports life is over and I’m returning to musical theater.”
Steepe said her role of Lucy is a fun exercise in playing a character with a personality opposite of her own.
“I am not a bossy, pushy person and it has been a lot of fun to embody this character that just thinks she’s always right,” Steepe said. “She bosses everyone around.”
She said that getting ready for her first production in years has illustrated differences to the performances she did in the past.
“At that age (middle school), the directors, they kind of just hope you can memorize your lines and learn the songs, and that’s as far as the expectations go,” she explained. “But Elizabeth (Nelson) and Deidra (Nuss, musical director) have really worked with me on body language and facial expressions and different ways of singing that actually bring a character to life. So it’s not just reading lines and singing songs, I actually get to become this character of Lucy, and that has been a fascinating process for me, something I’ve never had the opportunity to learn before.”
With opening night just a week away, Steepe is looking forward to her FCP debut, although she doesn’t have stage fright, she explained.
“I’m certainly nervous, just because I haven’t done it in so long,” Steepe commented. “Just because I haven’t done it in so long. I tend to do better, at least in my athletic history I tend to show up and do better in games than I do in practice, so I’m hoping that translates to the show as well.”
Like Steepe, Niles Corporon, who plays Schroder in the show, also is connecting with his character, although he has much more in common with his rolethan Steepe.
“One of the things I love about his character is it’s something that I can relate to,” he said. “He’s very passionate, he knows the things that he likes, he knows the things that he likes to do, and he’s passionate about classical music and about playing the piano and about his favorite composers, notably Ludwig van Beethoven. And despite the fact that none of his friends seem to actually share that passion, he’s happy to try to encourage them to share it with them. And they understand and accept him for the fact that that’s basically his whole life and his whole character, perfecting his craft.”
Corporon last performed with FCP in a 2016 production of “The Little Mermaid,” in which he portrayed King Triton. He first performed with FCP at the age of 13, as an ensemble member in “Oliver Twist.”
Corporon was unfamiliar with the musical version of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” when he decided to audition.
“It’s a show that I had never heard of before, and I knew it was going to be a small cast, so I thought it would be a good way to ease back into things without jumping right into a big fall musical or something like that,” Corpoon said about his choice to audition for the show.
He didn’t have his sights set on portraying Schroder during his initial audition.
‘When I went into the audition … I went into it thinking I wanted to be Linus,” he said. “But early in the audition process, I was like, ‘I don’t think I have the right temperament to play Linus.’”
He believes that the message of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” runs deeper than the comic strips.
“This little group of Charlie Brown and his friends, they’re like this little microcosm of a community,” Corporon explained. “ … I think the way they come together, and they appreciate and support each and accept each other, even though they're all such wildly different characters with such big emotions and egos and they have all these differences and preferences and opinions and likes and dislikes, but at the end of the day, they’re all able to support each other and come together.”
Corporon said that the overall message of the show is resilience.
“I would say, especially for the character of Charlie Brown,” he noted. “It’s just his resilience as a person to be able to face everything that comes at him. … I feel like that’s a message that the town really needs right now, is just hold on, keep hoping, be resilient, keep taking chances, keep pushing yourself and just kind of face that even if things don’t work out, maybe next time they will.”
“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” opens at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, with performances following at 7:30 p.m. on June 12, 2:30 p.m. on June 13, 7:30 p.m. on June 18 and 2:30 p.m. on June 19.
Tickets must be purchased ahead of the show from FCP.