By Mary Boyle
Children of the 70's and 80's will likely name A Charlie Brown Christmas as one of their holiday traditions—it was certainly one of mine. I read Peanuts in the Sunday paper, and checked out the books by Charles M. Schulz from my elementary school library on a regular basis; I'm not going to lie: I even had Snoopy sheets on my bed. My own kids have grown up with this holiday special, as well, in both book and DVD form, but First Stage in Milwaukee has brought back, by popular demand, a whole new way to experience A Charlie Brown Christmas: on the stage.
The show, which was adapted to the stage by Eric Schaeffer and is directed by Jeff Frank, is exactly as if the television special came to life. Milwaukee favorites, Matt Daniels, who plays Snoopy, and Jack Forbes Wilson, the pianist, are reprising their roles from the 2015 debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas at First Stage, which was a big hit. Wilson, who was recently seen on The Rep's stage in Souvenir, brings the beautiful music of the Vince Guaraldi Trio to life on the stage. Daniels, who was recently seen in Guys And Dolls at The Rep, and is a frequent collaborator at First Stage, manages to embody everyone's favorite cartoon dog remarkably well, along with all of the bizarre noises he makes. The two are the only adult performers in the production, which—I imagine—is exactly how Schulz would have wanted it.
Young performer roles are double cast. Young performers in the Schulz Cast are Zach Church (as Charlie) from West Bend; Austin Bock (as Schroeder) from Muskego; John Aebly (as Linus) from Germantown; Deyki Miller (as Shermy), Ivy Broder (as Lucy), and Sydney Johnson (as Violet/ Feat. Skater) from Waukesha; J. Jackson Vining (as Pig Pen) and Faye Muma (Ensemble) from Wauwatosa; Ellie Boyce (as Sally) from Nashotah; Grace Drabot (as Frieda) from Cedarburg; Madison Jones (as Patty) and Cole Sison (Ensemble) from Milwaukee; and Lulu Sammarco (Ensemble). Young performers in the Sparky Cast include Zack Duckler (as Charlie) from Mequon; Zachary Nowacek (as Schroeder) from Wauwatosa; Sawyer Esten (as Linus) from Cedarburg; Carson Pressley (as Shermy), Selma Rivera (as Lucy),Asha Metcalfe (as Violets/ Feat. Skater), Alice Rivera (as Sally), Erianna Ashmore-Purifoy (as Patty) from Milwaukee; Elliot Oquist (as Pig Pen) from Wauwatosa; Molly Domski (as Frieda) from Glendale; William Swoboda (Ensemble) from Whitefish Bay; Evie Evans (Ensemble) from Hartland and Reese Albert (Ensemble).
Although the television special aired just over 50 years ago, A Charlie Brown Christmas still holds, perhaps, the most simple and magical answer to what Christmas is really all about, and every time Linus gets up on that stage and tells it, I cry. Messing with the original is a very brave undertaking but, as usual, First Stage has pulled it off. In fact, if possible, it's even more magical, because everything is real and live! The ice skaters actually ice skate, and the sad little tree that Charlie Brown chooses really grows into something beautiful. With any luck, First Stage will make this production a tradition of their own—it's right up there with seeing A Christmas Carol at The Rep and the Nutcracker Ballet, as far as magical holiday theater experiences in Milwaukee. Don't miss this one.
A Charlie Brown Christmas runs through December 31st at the Todd Wehr Theater, located at 123 E. State St. in Milwaukee. Tickets are available by calling (414) 273-7206, or online at www.firststage.org.
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds, and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten, and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves over 2,100 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building, and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012), and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Eureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education, and the arts for its Next Steps program for students with autism (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Theatre Wisconsin, Milwaukee Arts Partners, and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).