By Alex Owens
Eleven years ago, Dr. Mark Arapostathis had his hands full running Peter Pan Junior Theater and working on his doctorate.
The program maxes out at the eighth grade, but when former students had a request he couldn’t let them down.
“Some former student came to me and felt there was nothing for them as freshmen,” Arapostathis said. “I was in graduate school and I said, ‘If I finish my doctorate, I will start a theater program for teens.”
Arapostathis got the Ph.D. in 2006 and started Captain Hook Theater the next year.
The company’s 2017 presentation, “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” runs June 28–July 1 at the Performing Arts Center at The Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center Theatre in Rolando.
Captain Hook did the play in 2012 and Arapostathis admits it’s an easier set up compared to “My Fair Lady,” the play he did with Peter Pan Junior Theater this past April.
“That one had a cast of 90, while this has a cast of 25 — plus a 40-person chorus made up of students in the junior theater program,” he said.
Although many of the students are familiar with Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Lucy from their TV specials and newspaper strips, Arapostathis had to educate them on the musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1965, and was revived in 1999.
“I told the kids that Gary Burghoff from ‘M.A.S.H.’ played Charlie Brown in the original and they had no idea who he was,” Arapostathis laughed. “The 1999 version featured Kristin Chenoweth as Sally. She won a Tony for Best Supporting Actor.”
This musical theater version of the “Peanuts” strips shares much in common with the source material.
“It is not broken into scenes like a normal play, but vignettes,” Arapostathis said. “It’s meant to be watched as if you’re reading the Sunday funnies. You know, three panels and the next strip.”
Most of the students in the show have some theatrical experience so Arapostathis gives them some freedom in their performance.
“I give them a body and they fill it out,” he said. “Younger kids are more like claymation — I have to mold them.”
Still, playing the parts of established characters like the “Peanuts” gang can present challenges for the teen thespians.
“They have to play the parts of 5- and 6-year-olds without using an adolescent voice,” Arapostathis said. “I explain that the audience will suspend disbelief. Typically, these roles are played by 25- to 38-year-olds and the audience realizes they’re not 6-year-olds.”
The actor, or in this production, the actress playing Snoopy also has to play the character differently than in the comics (where it communicates with thought balloons) or pantomime like in the animated specials.
“In the musical, Snoopy has dialogue,” Arapostathis explained. “There are two ways to do this: You can have everyone on stage freeze while Snoopy speaks, or he talks and the other characters ignore him except for Woodstock.”
In addition, the kids can’t mimic the flat vocal tones used on the cartoon specials.
“This is a musical and these kids are playing cartoon characters so you need bigger emotions and bigger expressions,” he said.
—Alex Owens is a La Mesa-based freelance writer.