First Stage Brings a Classic Holiday Story to Life with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

By Ana Martinez-Ortiz

Nolan Zellermayer as Charlie and King Z. Pollard as Linus contemplate which Christmas tree to buy in First Stage’s production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” (Photo by Paul Ruffolo)

Almost everyone is familiar with Charles Schulz’s iconic character Charlie Brown and his group of friends from the comic strip “Peanuts.” Charlie, along with the rest of the Peanut gang, tackle life’s big issues in a way that is relatable and understandable for children.

In the 1965 television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Charlie questions the true meaning of Christmas. Since its debut, the special has been adapted into a stage production. And while almost everyone is familiar with the story, it’s one that never fails to delight.

This year, First Stage Children’s Theater will be performing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, 121 E. State St., from Friday, Nov. 26 to Sunday, Dec. 26. The show runs 60 minutes and features two casts.

“‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is a classic holiday story that has stood the test of time,” Jeff Frank, First Stage’s artistic director and the show’s director, said in an email. “Surrounded by the trappings of the commercial holiday season, Charlie has to dig deep to rediscover the true spirit of Christmas – but with a little help from his friends, he does – and the audience gets to share in that joy.”

First Stage Brings a Classic Holiday Story to Life with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

Ailie Snyder plays Lucy and Edward Owczarski plays Charlie in the Sparky cast. (Photo by Paul Ruffolo)

Although First Stage has performed “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in the past, Frank noted that each time the company has worked on the show it refines the telling a bit more. He added that each cast brings their personal insight to show.

“Together we build a new production inspired by what we’ve done in the past but also colored anew by the hearts and minds of the current cast,” Frank said.

As with many theatre companies, First Stage canceled in-person performances at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the company kept the creative juices flowing with its virtual play series, “Amplify,” which featured plays by BIPOC playwrights.

Recently, the Marcus Center for Performing Arts reopened its doors to live audiences. As of October, the center requires proof of vaccination, or a proof of a negative COVID-19 test for patrons ages 12 and older.

“Opening night was pretty emotional for myself, the cast and our entire staff,” Frank said. “It has been a long and complex process to come back and to come back as safely as possible for all.”

First Stage Brings a Classic Holiday Story to Life with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

“‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is a classic holiday story that has stood the test of time,” Jeff Frank, First Stage’s artistic director and the show’s director, says. (Photo provided by First Stage)

As part of its run, First Stage will be offering a pay what you choose performance at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26. The tickets are first come, first served and the minimum suggested donation is $5 per person.

First Stage began doing pay what you choose performances several seasons ago, Frank explained. Initially, pay what you choose performances took place during weekday evenings, but this season, the performances are part of the weekend performances, he said.

“It is another way that First Stage works to ensure that all folks in our community have opportunities to come to the theatre,” Frank said.

In an email, Jennifer Hubbartt, First Stage’s marketing and communications director, said the pay what you choose performances are part of First Stage’s commitment to broadening its reach and deepening its impact in the community. It is part of the company’s effort to better serve families.

She added that First Stage will be celebrating its 35th season in 2022, with performances of “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” “The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors,” “The Amazing Lemonade Girl” and more.

Frank hopes that audiences recognize and appreciate the visual world that First Stage’s designers have created for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” He noted that the authenticity of the young actors is the key to connecting to the world of Schulz.

First Stage Brings a Classic Holiday Story to Life with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

First Stage is doing a pay what you choose performance at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26. Featured here is J.T. Backes as Snoopy and the rest of Peanut gang decorating Snoopy’s dog house. (Photo by Paul Ruffolo)

According to Frank, when the TV special was being cast, Schulz and Bill Melendez, the director, insisted that the characters be voiced by young people because they would give more humanity and truth to the piece. Schulz was right, he said. And that practice has continued in First Stage’s rendition.

Charlie is relatable to so many, Frank said. People get easily caught up in the holiday season and focus on consumerism, but “A Charlie Brown Christmas” offers an alternative truth to what it takes to be happy.

“It is the simple truths of the holiday season that we should revel in – being with family and friends, focusing on being kind, on what we can give rather than what we can get,” Frank said.

He added, “Come together to see this heartwarming production and collectively reflect on the season and your family and the love you have for each other. I promise you’ll leave with a bit more joy in your heart – then go out and spread that joy, the world needs it.”

To buy tickets for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” visit the First Stage website at firststage.org, call 414-273-7206 or visit the Marcus Center Box Office, 929 N. Water St. The pay what you can performance is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 26, the sensory friendly performance is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 1 and the sign language performance is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 19.