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Stage version gets the meaning of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

With Snoopy (Jesse Dornan) by his side, Charlie Brown (Jason Goff) reveals the runt of a tree he bought in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." | Austin Oie photo

None of the Peanuts gang introduce themselves at the start of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the adaptation back for its second holiday season at the Broadway Playhouse. No need, the team assumes, when comic strips, TV specials, last year’s CGI movie and a new Boomerang series make sure multiple generations know the meaning of “Good Grief!”

‘A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS’

Recommended

When: Through Jan. 8

Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut

Tickets: $16.50 – $32.50

Info: www.BroadwayinChicago.com

Run time: 47 minutes with no intermission

It’s just straight into the action, taken pretty much word for word, snowflake for snowflake from the animated small-screen classic, an annual ratings hit since its debut in 1965. Violet and Frieda spin on the ice (albeit in roller skates), Lucy gives psychiatric advice and all the kids hum “O Little Town of Bethlehem” around the tree, slurping air between stanzas.

As cartoon perennials go, the show that first brought Charles M. Schulz’s characters to full-length life has an unusually melancholy air, a sense of the despair that can accompany the joy of the season. While the grimmest dialogue is intact (“I know nobody likes me,” Charlie says. “Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”), the focus in this Emerald City Theatre production is more on the upbeat.

On TV, the scripture reading by Linus is a somber moment, but here the blanket clutcher (Daniel Kyri) is smiley and exuberant. When physical comedy or silly mugging comes along, it’s played up for maximum effect, much to the giggling glee of the pint-sized viewers in their reindeer sweaters and glittery dresses.

And in case the closing chorus of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” isn’t merry enough to assure you’ll leave happy and humming, this show throws in a little bonus sing-along of other carols, with the actors roaming the aisles to egg on the audience.

(Also tacked on: crowd-pleasers Woodstock and Peppermint Patty, who in reality were invented too late to get on the Christmas special.)

But faithfulness to the original to the original is clearly a goal for this adaptation, which even preserves the dated references to aluminum trees and “a big eastern syndicate.” When is this set, exactly? It’s unclear, but recently enough that some of the dudes can wear skinny jeans and an on-target snowball throw can be acknowledged with a big W.

Most of the holiday tourists who drift into this space a few yards from the American Girl Store are likely to emerge pleased with the show that’s goofy enough for the kids but self-aware enough to encourage knowing glances between longtime “Charlie Brown” watchers. The young adults of the cast are uniformly likable and precise. As the title blockhead, Jason Goff has an exasperated tone that makes his lines rueful but audible to the back row (and, it seems, a genuinely bald noggin).

Snoopy, played wordlessly by Jesse Dornan in mostly white and a fuzzy beagle head (available for sale in the lobby) atop his own, makes for an agile clown fully capable of a penguin impression or a blanket dance.

But some things in cartoons just can’t exist in the realm of reality. On TV, a scrawny, naked sapling instantly transforms into a majestic, brightly lit tannenbaum once it’s been briefly decorated by children’s waving hands. Turns out that’s impossible to accomplish in three dimensions, and here it’s achieved instead with a deft evergreen switcheroo.

Jason Groff (Charlie Brown) and Jesse Dornan (Snoopy) in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. | PHOTO BY AUSTIN OIE
Jason Groff (Charlie Brown) and Jesse Dornan (Snoopy) in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. | PHOTO BY AUSTIN OIE