Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook
(Cambridge, MA) The holiday season is littered with entertainment chestnuts that get trotted out every year. Some can get worn thin, like poorer productions of A Christmas Carol; others take on a hipster status, like the television special A Charlie Brown Christmas.
If you want to enjoy two holiday traditions at once, come see What the Dickens?!, a mashup musical that populates Dickens’ classic Christmas morality tale with Schultz’s Peanuts characters. Watching this play is like downing an invented drink mixed at a holiday party: the two flavors may mix curiously, but it’s all good.
In the play, Charlie Brown (Mathieu Gagne) has grown into a real SOB, having fallen under the crabby sway of Lucy Van Pelt (Emily Laverdiere) to become a slumlord so hardened that not even the earnest holiday spirit of Linus (David Marino) can reach him. But Lucy’s spirit comes back to give Charlie Brown (“It’s Chaz”) a chance at holiday redemption with a visit by three spirits: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a mall Santa, and a less-than-scary Ghost of Christmas Spirit (who happens to carry a yellow bird…hint, hint).
Peanuts characters are surprisingly difficult to pull off well onstage. So many of us have grown too attached to the curiously-animated and poorly-acted cartoon characters from the Charlie Brown television specials. To watch most actors deliver the lines without that wooden delivery and jerky movement is hard to swallow, but to watch the whole show in that style can get irritating.
Luckily, director Bobby Smithney endows his actors with a healthy mix of character tics of the Peanuts characters, but he saves the hilarious wooden delivery for one wonderful scene in Charlie Brown’s past. The payoff is worth the wait.
The production sometimes borders on feeling as though the show’s writer, TC Cheever, has stuck every formula for keeping an audience’s attention into a blender. Whenever we get bored of Dickens’ story, we have Peanuts nostalgia to fall back on; whenever we tire of that, we have some silly holiday songs to enjoy. It’s a technique that makes for some rough edges. Also, the “improvisatory” nod in this production feels perfunctory, with two small plot points decided by the audience.
But it is the cast that keeps you smiling in this production; it is their energy and spirit of silliness that sells the play. Laverdiere goes full-tilt as Lucy, bringing to life the charismatic crab that we all know and love. Marino seems to realize that Linus is the soul of any Peanuts production, and also that Linus’s earnestness can be irritating, and he deftly plays off both sets of expectations. And Gagne is strong as Charlie Brown, bringing a jumpy Lex Luthor-edginess to the round-headed kid.
Some of the songs are forgettable, and some are just hard to hear (mics please?), but some hit the right spot, like the chirpy “Hear the Bells”. But the cast and the backing band all have strong musical chops, which make even the illegible songs fun to try and hear.
Kick back a holiday high-ball and come get a different take on some Christmas classics. You won’t regret it.