YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, Phoenix Ascending, at the Athenaeum Theatre. After last November's overblown Broadway tryout at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, this utterly charming, less-is-more production is refreshing. Irrepressible and even innocent, director Stephen R. Roath's revival celebrates the sassy spirit of Charles Schulz's Peanuts people and Clark Gesner's 1968 musical. You don't need a flying kite or Snoopy's flying ace, both part of the Broadway-bound production, to capture this sturdy show's bittersweet nostalgia. Keep it real, refuse to cutesify the sometimes sardonic scenes, and this day in the life of Charlie Brown--a lifelong loser at the age of five--will evoke many childhoods.
If casting is half the battle, Phoenix Ascending can declare victory. Jimmy Freund's mock-heroic Snoopy tears into the vaudevillian "Suppertime" like a canine Eddie Cantor. Walter Thon as Linus has verve to spare, making even his blanket a star, while Nora Newbrough's bratty Sally screams her way into your heart. Tracy Repep (venomously hilarious in Sweetback Productions' Joan Crawford Goes to Hell) turns crabby Lucy into a plentifully ignorant playground princess, and as Schroeder, Ryan Patterson exudes grace under Lucy. But the standout is Matthew Gunnels, a young actor who was superb as mock-tragedian Arnold Beckoff in the theater's recent Torch Song Trilogy: his woeful but resilient Charlie Brown endears without effort. Good grief indeed.