Let's get this out there straightaway: Yes, SteppingStone Theatre's production of A Charlie Brown Christmas features a scene in which actual children replicate the iconic dance moves from the auditorium party scene. (There's no dabbing added — though Tommy Molldrem, as Pig-Pen, does get a little flossing in.) If you're ready to buy tickets immediately, go for it.
The 1965 TV special, the first in a long and storied series of Peanuts holiday shows, has a unique place in the crowded landscape of pop Christmas culture. Its kid characters have silly moments, but creator Charles Schulz and his collaborators take their inner lives seriously, telling a genuinely poignant story that's also an elegant marvel of mid-century aesthetics.
The special was also notable for enlisting child actors to voice the characters — rather than, as was typically the case, having adults imitate children. It's entirely fitting, then, to stage an adaptation that puts child actors onstage in the roles of Charlie Brown (a touchingly woebegotten Aaron Goehle), Linus (Ben Ross), Lucy (Molly McCormick), and the gang.
Eric Schaeffer's 2013 script is gratifyingly true to Schulz's original teleplay. It's impossible not to smile when you see director Dane Stauffer's young cast replicate the opening ice-rink scene, the pageant casting call (Lucy Prock is perfect as the preening custodian of Frieda's "naturally curly hair"), and the heartwarming transformation of Charlie Brown's tiny tree.
Costume designer Barb Portinga and set designer Micah Haworth have worked a marvel in bringing Schulz's world to the SteppingStone stage. Ross wears Linus' little stem-top hat; there's an upstage wall for the kids to lean on for their angsty little chats; and Lucy's psychiatric booth accurately notes that the doctor is "real in."
In the streaming era, the very idea of broadcast TV is starting to seem nostalgic. To that end, a troupe of teens created "ads" to act out during a few commercial interludes. The products are fictional, but a peppy soda "sponsor" is apt given that the original special was brought to you by Coca-Cola. Friday morning's young audience responded best to a skit that had the adolescents playing would-be lifelike dolls.
The show's weak spot is Snoopy. The adult Neal Skoy is a fine, physical, comic actor, but a little of his schtick goes a long way. Between his sheer size and his onstage confidence, Skoy's presence constantly threatens to pull the audience out of the delicate world inhabited by his child co-stars. Dialing back on man's best friend would better serve the show.
If you've seen the special, you'll appreciate that there's bound to be something magical about watching an actual kid, on an actual stage in front of an actual towering red curtain, step forward to speak the Bible excerpt that's at the center of the story. Ross is completely sincere and utterly moving in that key scene, a quiet beat in a show that's bursting with heart.