Five decades ago, Charlie Brown worried that commercialism was overtaking Christmas.
But that doesn’t make the telling of what’s become a Christmas classic any less compelling and enjoyable.
“Charlie Brown was talking about how it was happening when the Christmas special was released 50 years ago,” says Colt Neidhardt, who is directing Playmakers of Baton Rouge’s production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “But this cast doesn’t know a time when we didn’t have Black Friday and Cyber Monday and all of the things leading up to that.”
Neidhardt and the cast talked about Christmas and its encroaching materialism at the beginning of rehearsals for the play, which opens Friday.
“It makes me wonder if that concept is still timely today, because it’s already happened,” Neidhardt says. “But then, this is something that everyone loves. I know Christmas wouldn’t be complete without it, and having it performed in live theater is going to be special.”
Eric Schaeffer’s stage adaptation follows Charles Schultz’s 1965 animated Christmas special, interspersed with a few expanded scenes and some new material. Charlie Brown searches for the true meaning of Christmas among a rising sea of materialism. His attempt to restore Christmas spirit fails with his choice of a forlorn fir tree for his school’s Christmas pageant, and Linus brings everything together by reciting the story of Jesus’ birth from the gospel of Luke.
“We also have a live jazz band on stage playing Vince Guaraldi’s jazz score for the special,” Neidhardt says. “They’ll be playing all of the songs, and, of course, our cast will be singing, ‘Christmas Time is Here.’”
Wil Thomas is playing Charlie Brown, and Marion Bienvenu takes on the role of his adversarial friend Lucy.
“Lucy isn’t mean, she’s just always right,” says Bienvenu, who comes to the role immediately after playing the “Lady of the Lake” in Theatre Baton Rouge’s “Spamalot.” “It’s been a crazy couple of months, because Lucy and the Lady are so different. But they’re both divas, which makes them a lot alike.”
And though Lucy’s brother Linus, played by Josh Allred, is much quieter, he also shares some of his sister’s characteristics.
“He’s also right a lot of the time, but he’s more of an observer,” Allred says. “He’s more gentle than his sister.”
And all Peanuts fans know that Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, is madly in love with Linus.
“Everybody sees her as just Charlie Brown’s sister, and that frustrates her because she has lots to say,” says Maggie McGurn, who is bringing Sally to the stage.
But the biggest spotlight always seems to be on Snoopy, who can’t speak, not even bark.
“This has been a challenging role for me as an actor,” say Lauren Stefanski, who is playing the world’s most famous beagle. “Snoopy doesn’t speak, but he says so much. And I was so happy to get this role — Snoopy, as everyone knows, is the coolest.”
But Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas outshines even Snoopy’s coolness.
“There’s something pure and wonderful about it,” Neidhardt says. “It was written at a time that wasn’t so pessimistic. The show plays at a quick, fun pace that is full of wit, music, dance and life philosophy, which makes it perfect for audiences of all ages.”