In Holiday Guide Reviews

The cast of First Stage's "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which opened Saturday night. (PHOTO: Paul Ruffolo)

Snoopy powers his Sopwith Camel into the holiday season at First Stage

This time two years ago, Matt Daniels was in rehearsal for a role in a production that required him to play a variety of characters, including a Chesapeake retriever named Lucky.

Moving that clock forward, Daniels has now opened a show in which he is required to play just one character, one of the most famous dogs in history, Snoopy, the friendly and good natured beagle created by Charles M. Schulz in his Charlie Brown comic strips.

Daniels is the full-of-joy dog in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which opened a month-long run at First Stage Saturday night.

With a full house of tiny tots cramming the Todd Wehr Theater, Daniels slipped and slid his way through 90 minutes of hilarious shenanigans that had these little ones squealing with laughter.

The story of the play is simple. Charlie Brown is depressed about Christmas. He just can't seem to get excited about things and, as expected, pays his nickel for counseling at Lucy's psychiatric office. This doctor is "IN."

She prescribes some activity that involves the holiday season, fearing that his inactivity is responsible for his depression. From there, it's a small step for her to coerce him into directing the annual Christmas play featuring Schroeder, Linus, Pig Pen and Patty, as well as other members of this tribe.

True to all Christmas fables, this one ends in joy to the world. The forlorn tree Charlie got is decorated as it morphs from nothing more than a branch to a full-fledged tree, complete with a skirt made out of Linus' omnipresent blue blanket.

Jeff Frank, the artistic director at First Stage, directed this play, and it's obvious he knows what tickles the funnybone of little kids. They aren't going to get jokes or sparkling dialogue. Kids laugh when they see something funny. And that's what Frank delivers.

The Schulz cast (the show is double-cast with child actors) sing and dance their way through the story with joy and grace. Most of them are in the First Stage Theater Academy, perhaps the finest kid training program in the country, and it shows in their professionalism and skills.

But this show belongs to two adults: Daniels and the Milwaukee treasure, Jack Forbes Wilson, on piano.

Wilson plays through virtually the entire show, and if a piano can be funny, Wilson has found a way to make it so. The music is great and is also filled with humor and seasonal charm. It provides a base for the action on a stage skilfully designed by Martin McClendon.

And the action of the day belongs to that dog with the floppy ears.

Whether he is riding his doghouse, complete with flying scarf and aviator's helmet as he pilots his Sopwith Camel (a World War I biplane) trying to dodge the fearsome Red Baron or he is sitting atop a piano playing his ukelele or slipping and sliding on the ice rink, it is one laugh after another. The kids couldn't get enough of him.

Daniels trained at Juilliard and worked in New York and Chicago before settling in Milwaukee about 10 years ago. His work has always been compelling, and his most striking feature has always been his movement.

Daniels understands, better than most actors I've seen, how movement and the body can often convey more than mere words. His work in productions like "Chesapeake" and "The Merchant of Venice" under David Chambers at Milwaukee Shakespeare are eloquent testimonial to his skills.

But it is this role of Snoopy that the full-force of his magic is most obvious. He plays a dog. He plays a funny dog. He plays a funny dog who plays the ukulele. He plays a funny dog that plays the ukulele and can't stand up on a patch of ice.

This is not an easy role, but Daniels does it with consummate ease. The truest test of skill is when you can make the hard look easy.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" runs through Jan. 3 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Production credits: Director, Jeff Frank; Music Director, Jack Forbes Wilson; Choreographer, Jennifer Adams; Scenic Designer, Martin McClendon; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko, Lighting Designer, Noelle Stollmack; Sound designer, Matt Whitmore; Stage Manager, Sarah Deming-Henes; Assistant Stage Manager, Lauren Gingold.


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