Review: First Stage’s ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

The music, set design and talented cast come together for a magical production that reminds us that Christmas is about more than gifts and decorations.

I’m of the belief that the 1965 animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas (streaming on Apple TV) is the all-time greatest Christmas movie. In just 25 minutes, Charles M. Schulz captures both the feeling and the meaning behind the holiday. 

Naturally, I was excited to review First Stage’s live interpretation of this classic, running now through Dec. 26. 

The show opens with a single pianist, Paul Helm, playing “Christmas Time Is Here.” The children’s cast joins in on the verses with voices so sweet it they will melt the snowflakes off your sweater on a cold winter day. While the music plays the stage is mostly still, apart from lights flickering in the houses. It’s simple, beautiful and exactly what A Charlie Brown Christmas is meant to be. 

Then, the lights go off and a dog house is brought onto stage. It’s Snoopy! The Christmas beagle is played by adult cast member J.T. Backes. Seeing the sly and resourceful pup played by a grown man may take a minute of adjustment, but he grows on you quickly, and is a fan-favorite for the children in the audience who couldn’t stop laughing every time he hit the stage. 

J.T. Backes in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Snoopy starts by pulling random items out of his dog house as if he’s Mary Poppins. He finds everything from a summer inner tube (kids laugh) to a massive copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (adults laugh). This scene sets the tone for the rest of the show. Younger audience members loved the silliness, while the rest of us found our giggles watching little kids behave like little adults. Snoopy eventually finds his food bowl, and we’re off to the next scene. 

An ice skating rink appears and snow starts to fall as the children’s cast enter the stage. The actors wear bright-colored parkas that make their characters immediately recognizable. Two girls lace up their skates and take to the ice, Pig Pen (Benjamin Poindexter) builds a snowman and Snoopy take a spill on the rink all while Helm continues with the magical score on keys. Of course, there’s a snowball fight, and Linus (King Z Pollard) even gets to show off how he throws one with his blanket. 

Lucia Harris, Alice Rivera, and Maura Kuhnen-Grooms in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

A moment from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown sneaks in next with Snoopy getting to shine as the Red Barron. This scene makes use of some clever special effects including a belly-laugh moment that involves a Snoopy stuffed animal and a parachute.

Now, there is no A Charlie Brown Christmas without Charlie Brown, and Nolan Zellermayer plays the role as the gentle, insecure and lovable soul he is. We get to know him best when Lucy – played by Alice Rivera, an undeniable star – charges him 5 cents for “psychiatric help.” At a lemonade stand-esque booth, Charlie Brown sits with his fair-weather friend and shares his holiday blues. “I feel depressed. I know I should be happy, but I’m not,” he tells Lucy. She resolves he needs involvement and gives him the job as director for a Christmas play. 

Paul Helm and J.T. Backes in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Charlie Brown’s play is, of course, a mess. The cast won’t listen to him and just dances between takes, which is adorable. The director worries that the play – like his dog and little sister Sally (Maura Kuhnen-Grooms) – is too commercial. To save it, him and Linus go on a quest to find the perfect Christmas tree. While he’s away, we get to see Schroeder (Thatcher Jacobs) play keys while Snoopy dances on top of his miniature piano, which is a delight. 

In a sea of colorful Christmas trees, Charlie Brown chooses the humblest one despite Linus’ warnings to pick something flashier. Naturally, his cast hates it. “Boy, are you stupid Charlie Brown,” Violet (Lucy Halpern) snipes. The genuine performances from the young actors and actresses makes your heart hurt for poor Charlie Brown. 

Nolan Zellermayer and King Z. Pollard in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

This is when we get that beautiful reminder from Linus about the reason for the season. Pollard’s monologue lands with him quoting the famous Bible verse: 

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’ And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’” 

– Luke 2: 8-14

Of course, we get Charlie Brown’s happy ending. The cast decorates the tree – shuffling around just like they do in the cartoon – and sings us out with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It was the perfect finale to a touching production. 

This show was designed for families. The runtime is just 60 minutes with no intermission, making it palatable for even the youngest in the Peanuts gallery. After the show there’s a short “talk back” and audience members can ask the cast any questions they may have. 

First Stage – as well as 12 other performing arts groups – are taking health precautions seriously. To get in the theater, you need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours of your performance. The theater company has also opted not to sell every seat in the house. 

Showtimes and tickets can be found on First Stage’s website. The show has two children’s casts – Sparky and Schulz. I got to see the the Sparky cast do their work, but I trust that Schulz’s Peanuts bunch would ace the performance as well. 

MORE PHOTOS

Taylor Arnstein and cast in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

 

J.T. Backes (front) and cast in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

 

Thatcher Jacobs, J.T. Backes, and Alice Rivera in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

 

Nolan Zellermayer, Patrick Kanter, Benjamin Poindexter, and Taylor Arnstein in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

 

Nolan Zellermayer in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. First Stage, 2021. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

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Allison Garcia is the Digital Editor for Milwaukee Magazine.