It’s hard to believe, but 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, one of the prime community theaters in Ventura County. In 1995, the center’s first production was the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, produced by Jan Glasband with a cast featuring Jan’s daughter Robin (now Robin Airington) as Lucy. On March 7, Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi will once again be staging Charlie Brown, but this time it will be Robin’s daughter, Mia Vavasseur, who will be playing the same part she played a quarter century ago. Mia’s grandmother, Jan Glasband, who founded the theater’s first acting company is the producer, just as she was when the center opened in 1995. We sat down with all three generations to talk about the show and their experiences with the theater.
VCOS: Tell me about the opening of the theater and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
JAN: Well, the original version was done at a time when we were doing exclusively youth productions, and it was called the Arts Youth Ensemble back then. The way it came about was that we had been doing a lot of programs and classes with kids in junior productions of shows like Les Miserables at the old Court Theatre at Galena and Cochran. And I recognized such incredible talent in this group of kids that I thought, well, let’s try to do a full-on Broadway production of some show that could feature their skills. So we chose You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown because of the subject matter and the content. It was, of course, the original version, not the revised version, which didn’t come about until much later. So we double cast it with a group of kids between the ages of 11 and 13 so that each character could be played by two people, and they would swap performances. That was the same year the Cultural Arts Center was opening. We had also taken the production to the Santa Paula Theatre Center and performed it there. So when the Cultural Arts Center opened, I thought this would be a great opportunity to bring it to that stage. Ironically, the little theatre at Cochran and Galena magically had the same name for about a year: the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. The city owned that property, which used to be the old East County Courthouse. When they sold it back to Larry Larwin, he donated it to the YMCA. Then they closed the little theatre and after they purchased the property on L.A. Avenue, it became the new Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. So rather than flounder around with the theater company with nowhere to go, we took the production to the stage there and it was the first musical theater production at that theater. It was wildly successful and everybody loved it. The kids were just amazing.
VCOS: What do you remember about that time, Robin?
ROBIN: I had started acting with my mom’s theater company back when I was a kid, maybe 10 years old. She had just started the company and we were the first performers involved, me and my sister and my friends. I’ve always loved musical theater and got to perform in all kinds of plays. Then when I was a young teen I did some work with another company, too, so I wouldn’t have to just work in my mother’s company.
VCOS: What do you remember about your appearance as Lucy?
ROBIN: It was the first production her theater company did so it was really special playing her. It was an all-kids cast and I got to be a really big brat, which was kind of my personality at the time in ways so it really fit me.
VCOS: Jan, are you still double casting it today?
JAN: Well, we’re doing it in a different way now. David Daniels, who’s directing the show this time around, thought it might be a really great idea, because we know so many talented kids, that we would create a shadow cast of kids who would play the same roles as the adults, with the adults acting as their mentors. So the kids will be performing three Saturday matinee performances on March 21st and 28th and April 4th and the adults will do the other 14 performances. We hand-picked the kids that we wanted so there was no audition process. The material is not as easy as you’d think it might be because there are very challenging harmonies in the singing and the characters are not simple, they’re very complex. In a way, they are adult representations of how children see themselves. And they take themselves very seriously. It’s just such a great show. It’s very well written and the kids just are killing it. And the adults are too.
VCOS: So Mia, I hear that you are shadowing Mary Zastrow as Lucy, right?
MIA: I am. I love Mary. I’ve known her for something like seven years, ever since we were in Les Miserables together and I love it every time I get to work with her or just spend time with her. She’s just a bubbly person and we really bonded with each other, and I think the other kids have also bonded with their counterparts so we all get along great.
VCOS: Mary is kind of Ventura County’s own answer to Carol Burnett. She can sing, she can do comedy…
JAN: Oh, she’s awesome. And hysterical.
VCOS: Mia, did you grow up reading Peanuts or is this your first exposure to the characters?
MIA: I always loved reading it in the Sunday comics. It would come mostly to my dad’s house because my grandma on his side would always save the comics for me. I feel like I’ve always had a more mature sense of humor and I could understand Peanuts and get the jokes.
VCOS: To me, Lucy is the most well-rounded character because she behaves differently toward each of the other kids. Linus is always Linus, Charlie Brown stays the same with everyone, but Lucy behaves differently with each one. Does this present any challenges for you?
MIA: Absolutely, and I love getting to explore all those different parts of Lucy that make her that well-rounded character, working with different actors and playing different roles and getting to explore those little crevasses of what makes her unique.
VCOS: Robin, do you see Mia as a Lucy type?
ROBIN: Not as much as me. I have a very forceful personality and that role really reflected me at that time. Mia? Not so much. Mia is a chill girl. She is not like me when it comes to her disposition. She’s not uptight at all, she’s very relaxed so she’ll probably have to use a little more of her acting skills than I did (laughs).
VCOS: One thing about this show is that, unlike other musicals, the characters don’t really grow, being comic book characters, so this tends to make them kind of two-dimensional. How do you handle that? Does Lucy change at all?
MIA: I believe that she does change. There’s this scene where she finds out that she is a crabby person and so she goes around and takes a poll to find out who thinks she’s the crabbiest. But she does have a couple of moments of self-realization and comes to know herself better as a person. It is, after all, only one day in the life of these Peanuts characters, but you can see how they go about their lives and how much they can learn in just one day.
VCOS: After all these years – more than 50 now since it was first on Broadway – the show has proven to be pretty timeless, except that some people today might object to Lucy for her constant bullying of poor Charlie Brown. Does this bother you at all about her character?
MIA: No, I think it’s funny because Charlie Brown is such an easy target. And of course, everyone knows it’s all in fun, but that’s just her personality. I relate – maybe a tiny bit – to that personality.
VCOS: Lucy has a soft spot and that’s her infatuation with Schroeder.
JAN: I have to interject something here because Mia adores Lucas Panczel, the boy who’s playing Schroeder. He’s one of her favorite people on the planet.
MIA: I love Lucas, but I think Schroeder is a little bit different from everyone else. He has this one thing that he sticks to, music, and I can relate to that, too. He’s a loner type and needs to sit there and focus on his music, but Lucy figures out that she can confide in him because he won’t talk back. So she’ll sit there while he’s playing and just talk and talk and talk and he’ll just listen.
VCOS: Maybe he’ll listen.
MIA: Or just block her out, one of the two. But I feel that she loves that she can just confide in someone who won’t argue with her/
JAN: Don’t you think Lucy finds Schroeder to be a bit of a challenge?
MIA: Maybe a little bit.
VCOS: Well, she chases after him all the time and tries to get him to expand his musical horizons past just Beethoven.
MIA: Yeah, like “April Showers” or “Frere Jacques.”
VCOS: What are Lucy’s biggest redeeming qualities?
MIA: I think she can give out good advice when she wants to. And I think there is a lot one can learn from Lucy. In the psychiatric advice scene, she tells Charlie Brown, “Don’t be depressed. You’re you and that’s all that matters.” I like that.
JAN: Those are good messages.
MIA: And I think that hearing something like that, especially coming from that character, is a really redeeming thing. So I’m learning something new about her every day.
VCOS: What do you like about her best?
MIA: That’s such a difficult question. I like how “out there” she is. And how extroverted she is. She’s big, she’s loud, and she’s the first character I’ve played who is quite like that.
VCOS: She never sublimates her feelings, does she?
MIA: Never. Whatever she thinks just comes out.
JAN: She’s brutally honest and blunt all the time, which is another thing that I find very appealing about this material in particular. All of these kids are very honest, and kids normally are very honest, but in an adult way, which is very interesting, too.
VCOS: Is your grandma a “hands-off” kind of person when it comes to your performing?
MIA: She has definitely taken a step back and let me work with this character, which I really appreciate. But I always appreciate her help and her input because she’s really wise and knows a lot about this show and these characters. I will take any advice from her that I can get.
VCOS: How about you, Robin?
ROBIN: I’m hands-off, too. I like to say that I’m a really bad stage mom because I’m not a good stage mom. Even though I’ve done theater in the past, I’m not a theater person. I don’t do theater anymore but I still love seeing it.
MIA: I have asked her for tips and tricks but she just believes that I’m going to do it better than she did. She’s my mom and I always want to make her proud, you know, and to live up to what she envisions and I think that will be easy for me because she believes in me.
ROBIN: Mia does all kinds of other stuff, too. She has an agent and a manager and we take her to L.A. to audition for all kinds of shows in TV, movies, voiceovers, but it’s all been kind of geared around what Mia wants and I’m just along for the ride.
JAN: I have a videotape of Robin’s performance playing Lucy. We couldn’t get two boys to play Charlie Brown but we did have Robin’s 11-year-old sister, who played the other Charlie Brown so I had that performance transferred to from video to a DVD. It’s a horrible copy but it is wonderful to have and is a great memento of that show.
MIA: I watched it and my mom brought her own personality into it and meshed with the character, which is something that I really liked. My mom has this very distinct personality and I can see it.
JAN: I can see that Robin really related to Lucy on a very visceral level. We worked with the kids so much on that show with the relationships between the characters and kids are so receptive to ideas and incorporating those ideas. It’s much more difficult to work with an adult cast and have them be able to relate to the child in them, which is the goal of every adult actor doing this show, to be able to remember what it was like back then. But that whole childlike relationship with one’s younger self is very hard to achieve for an adult but it’s very easy for a kid, and you get immediate results. It’s just a pleasure to work with kids. I’ve been doing it for 30 years so that’s my happy spot.
VCOS: What’s your favorite part of the show?
MIA: There are so many favorite parts! I love the psychiatric advice booth scene. And I also like when Linus is doing his blanket number. We all get blankets, by the way, and we all get to tango with our blanket. It’s funny and fun and we’re doing partner work, so that’s probably my favorite musical number.
JAN: Another thing is that all these kids who we’ve cast are triple threats. They all excel in every area of musical theater: they’re terrific singers, they’re terrific dancers, they’re wonderful actors, so it’s been an easy road for David Daniels, who is great with children. He’s a producer for Disney and now he’s a dad of a darling two-year-old boy. He was actually supposed to be directing The Wedding Singer but he suggested You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and then I realized that this was the 25th anniversary of the theater, that’s the show that started everything, so that was perfect. It was meant to be.
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown plays from March 7 to April 5 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. Matinees on March 21, 28, and April 4 feature an all-kids cast. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar