Aspen Times Weekly: Good grief: ‘Charlie Brown’ at Theatre Aspen
The Aspen Times
Art is at its best when it has the capacity to surprise us, and what I walked into at Theatre Aspen took me without warning. When the show opened, with Sally Brown pointing out her older brother’s inadequacies — “The only thing wrong with my brother is his lack of confidence; his inferiority and his lack of confidence; his clumsiness, his inferiority and his lack of confidence …” — I was hit by something, something that wasn’t a smooth ride into some pleasant childhood memories. I teared up, and then teared up several times more through the show, thinking about my childhood, my adulthood.
One explanation is that I hadn’t slept much the night before, and went to the theater drowsy, my defenses down maybe. Another explanation is that “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” for all its humor and ultimate message about overcoming adversity, is really about the brutality of the world. Loneliness, futility, cruelty and indifference aren’t just mentioned briefly at the beginning and then dispensed in a child-friendly goop of primary colors and one-liners. This is the essence of the play. Life — even childhood, and maybe childhood most of all — is being ignored and disappointed. Losing the big baseball game and having the football pulled out from under you aren’t just things that might happen — they are inevitable.
Theatre Aspen’s presentation of “Charlie Brown” — with solid performances all around, particularly by Daniel Berryman as Charlie Brown and Alison Walsh as Sally — does nothing to crank up this darker side. The music is tuneful and bright; the tone isn’t menacing. Still, there is something powerful at work here, something that touched deep into my well of old memories and lasting self-doubts. It is why the musical — and no less the “Peanuts” comic strip on which it is based, and which has endured for decades — ranks with the great “children’s art” that doesn’t lose its effectiveness when we pass into adulthood: “The Little Prince,” Dr. Seuss, “The Princess Bride,” all of which wrap life’s complexities into ingenious packages that, to a child’s eye, look like simple entertainment. (It’s worth noting that in 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” earned the Outer Critics Circle Award for best production.)
Leaving the theater, I figured I was the only one who had been melted into a pile of weepy goo. But as I exited, I saw Paige Price, who directed the play (and is also Theatre Aspen’s artistic director). She asked what I thought, and briefly I responded: “Unexpectedly emotional.” She told me that she too cries at the end of every performance, but her tears come from something different.
What gets Price is at the very end, after the somehow completely unironic song “Happiness,” when Lucy offers to shake Charlie’s hand. Charlie trembles a bit — he’s been on the receiving end of Lucy’s torture forever — but Lucy, finally, gives him a warm shake, and tells him that he is indeed a good man.
“Small acts of kindness — that is the ultimate gesture she makes at the end of the day,” Price told me later. “All the little times that somebody picks you up — that’s what gets you through the day. Every time I tell myself I’m not going to cry. And I do.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who made their valley debut this past Thursday at PAC3 in Carbondale, was another of those experiences — a thoroughly entertaining thing on the surface, with a deep well underneath.
The four-piece Chocolate Drops, centered in North Carolina, play an updated version of African-American string band music rooted as far back as the mid-19th century. The touchstones are familiar ones — folk blues, Appalachian fiddle tunes — and more obscure styles — fife and drum, jug band, early jazz. Bandleader Dom Flemons, who plays banjo, guitar, percussion and more, is an out-and-out entertainer, with a repertoire of stage patter and stories to go with the unusual stage persona — a modern-day Okie, but black, educated and hailing from Flagstaff, Ariz., with a love for lesser-known Bob Dylan tunes. Rhiannon Giddens, who continues a tradition of strong female belters going back to Ma Rainey, can deliver a song with the best of them; her performance of “Country Girl” was as much character and theater as it was singing.
The crowd at PAC3 could well have been responding to the virtuosity, the freshness of the style and presentation, the band’s ability to play a vast range of sounds and instruments. But it’s just as likely that the heartfelt applause, after each song and most every solo, came from a recognition of the foundation of history that the Chocolate Drops are built on.
Mark it, dudes: Louisiana guitarist Tab Benoit, as compelling a bluesman as exists today, plays the Snowmass Free Concert Series on Fanny Hill on Thursday, Aug. 1. Brit Floyd, which does an immaculate take on the music of Pink Floyd, finishes a two-night Belly Up stand later that night. Bassist Edgar Meyer, a longtime member of the Aspen Music School faculty and a hero at both classical and bluegrass festivals, does his annual recital on Saturday, Aug. 3.
Paige Price suggests that the reason the one-person comedy “Fully Committed” has been selling out regularly is that Theatre Aspen scheduled only nine performances this summer. (She also properly gives credit to Matt Bailey, the show’s lone actor, who does a phenomenal job.) But I say that “Fully Committed” would be drawing big crowds no matter how many dates it had on the schedule. The show is so enjoyable, and when it ended, after a too-short 70 minutes, I was genuinely craving more. Only three shows left: Thursday, Aug. 1; and Aug. 10 and 15.
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