05/31/2016 09:40 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

First Nighter: 'You a Good Man, Charlie Brown' Revival Weirdly Miscast, "Friend Art" Drama No Friend to Art, Marin Mazzie, Daniel Dae Kim Superb in 'The King and I'

You can hear the conversation when the folks at the York Theatre Company started thinking about their current You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown revival.

Someone said, "What can we do to make it really fresh?" After a few suggestions that didn't catch fire, someone else said, "Since Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts is about children, why not let's do something that maybe has never been done before--an all-children cast?" Someone else jumped on the notion and said, "That's it." And off they went.

Except that's not it. That's exactly what Peanuts, which still runs in newspapers as repeats, is not. A comic strip for children isn't what Schulz was offering. Sure, the characters we all know and love--Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Schroeder, Sally, Linus--were/are ostensibly children.

Yes, they're precocious children, but they're more than that. They're the inner child with whom adults connect. That's the audience Schulz was addressing. When, for instance, Sally moans that her life is "a Shakespearean tragedy," she's not expressing a sentiment that any typical 7-year-old or 8-year-old is likely to utter. An adult, however, might hear it from an inner 8-year-old.

So Michael Unger, who directs this new version (based on Michael Mayer's 1999 Broadway revival, which made Kristin Chenoweth a star), has it all wrong. Perhaps if he were working with a cast of six intellectually precocious kids, he'd be able to pull it off. He isn't. He's working with youngsters, a few of whom are precocious as performers, which isn't the same thing, Mrs. Worthington.

The one who comes closest to understanding what he's required to do with the songs and dialog that bookwriter-composer-lyricist Clark Gesner made of Schulz's material (with two songs Andrew Lippa added) is Joshua Colley as, luckily, Charlie Brown. He sings with clarion clarity and even gives the impression that he understands Charlie Brown's incipient depression. (Is it going too far out a limb--or just embarrassingly late?--to say that Charlie is Charles Schulz's adult version of his childhood self?)

The other cast members, all of whom have impressive resumés listing roles in which they've played actual children rather than Schulz's exaggerations of children, come off as in over their low-to-the-ground heads. Too often they race through lines they don't quite comprehend to the point where they're unintelligible. They're doing what Unger and choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee have asked them to do but not necessarily getting the why of it.

The last two You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown numbers--"Suppertime," sung by Aidan Gemme as Snoopy (with the cast), and "Happiness Is," sung by the entire cast--are straightforward. They have a joyfully childlike appeal that at last lifts the musical to higher heights. Until then, the revival doesn't boast the sort of élan that Schulz or Gesner, neither of them still with us, would approve. Good grief!
In the Write-About-What-You-Know Department there must be several subdivisions. One has to be labeled "Experiences-as-Artist." This is the sub-division in which Sofia Alvarez slots Friend Art, directed capably enough by Portia Krieger at Second Stage Theatre Uptown's McGinn/Cazale.

This reviewer would be willing to place a bet that Alvarez, searching for a subject, as well as to write about what she knows, said to herself that she's an artist who knows about others calling themselves artists in one way or another.

Thus her 85-minute four-character finger exercise in which: Nate (Constantine Maroulis, cast in part for type) is a past-his-chart-days rocker with as least one monster hit; Molly (Zoe Chao) is a failed actress now working in a law firm; Lil (Anabelle Lemieux) is a shockingly bad, self-proclaimed performance artist concentrating on revealing her deepest psychological fears to audiences through her monologs; and Kevin (Aaron Costa Ganis) is a corporate art curator who's fed up with his no-future position.

Alvarez intros the foursome (versions of her friends?) when Lil has just finished a poorly attended performance of a poorly written piece. Supposed good friends Molly and Kevin come to congratulate her as best they can. Arriving seconds after them is Lil's now estranged boyfriend Nate with an apparent reconciliation agenda in mind.

The four friends--or incipient frenemies, as Alvarez develops matters--decide on drinks. Over them drug-free Molly not only learns the others are sniffing cocaine somewhere else in the establishment but also responds truthfully about Lil's act when repeatedly coaxed. She finds--no surprise--that Lil doesn't want the truth, after all.

From then on, the four buddies(?) meet mostly in various locations all over Daniel Zimmerman's confusing two-level set to complain about each other. Often the pairings suggest that in the final analysis Kevin could end up with Lil and Molly could end up with Nate--not that Alvarez reaches a final analysis. Instead, she schedules the final blackout when it appears she can't think of anything else to say or anywhere else to go.

Watching Nate, Kevin, Molly and Lil be their irritating, self-absorbed selves for even 85 minutes is extremely patience trying. (Maybe these millennials won't be so irksome to other perennials.) A particular eye-bugging development occurs when Kevin, who's always been candid about not liking Lil's work, decides he admires her courage for sticking to what she loves no matter how deficient she is at it.

Convincing himself this is his entry into show-biz and his exit from looming law school, he offers to help her improve her latest material, a sketch in which Lil wears a snake glove and natters on about her unfortunate relationships with snake-like men. (Presumably costumer Asta Bennie Hostetter designed the two snake pieces used.)

Kevin's main contribution is introducing Lil to (unseen) musician Mike, who tarts up the snake bit to the point where it's a hit. At least, that's what she and Alvarez think. McGinn/Cazale audiences won't agree. And Kevin's in for a jolt when Lil declares her favored collaborator isn't Kevin.

In the proceedings, Alvarez has Kevin explain the title as referring to art that only friends support. This raises a thought the playwright must have considered and then dismissed when Second Stage got behind her opus: Will only her friends congratulate her on it? Put another way: Is Friend Art a shining example of friend art?
Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim are now playing, in reverse order, the title characters of the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II classic musical, The King and I. With few other cast changes, the Bartlett Sher revival (choreography by Christopher Gattelli) remains the emotionally moving spectacle it was in 1951 and has been ever since--but is possibly even more so now. At one point the conflicted king considers building a wall around his Siam. That piece of dialogue probably never elicited the laughs it gets today. Kim is strong, hugely articulate and sexy, and Mazzie is, uh, a-Mazzie-ng.