Sunday, May 12, 2013

StageOne Takes Us Back to Charlotte’s Web

Julie Dingman-Evans as Charlotte in Charlotte's Web.
Photo – StageOne Family Theatre.

Charlotte’s Web

Based on the book by E.B. White
Adapted by Joseph Robinson
Directed by Mike Brooks

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Keith Waits.  All rights reserved.

Charlotte’s Web is one of those familiar children’s stories that require little plot summary. Wilbur the pig, Charlotte the spider, Templeton the rat, and other critters on Homer’s farm are familiar to generations of kids of all ages.

Watching this new production from StageOne Family Theatre was my first visit to the story in many, many years, and I was struck by how delicately the script, adapted by Joseph Robinson from E.B. White’s novel, introduces themes of mortality and legacy to young audiences. You will find no spoilers here, even though most of you will know of what I speak. It begins with how Wilbur’s fate is discussed and becomes the driver of the narrative, and it ends with death and loss that is tenderly framed more as a step in a natural process than tragedy.

Do not fear. These weighty themes are surrounded by enough comedy and good cheer, all carried off in a clean and straightforward narrative that only slightly tested the forbearance of the youngest in the audience. Yes, a few squirmed with restlessness as the story moved to the county fair; and, interestingly, this is where the more serious ideas start to make their presence known, begging the question of whether it was time or a slight shift in tone that they were responding to. Yet, clocking in at just about one hour, director Mike Brooks sets a good pace for a story of some complexity and elicits memorable performances from a skilled cast that held most of the audience well enough.

The material has been adapted as an animated film, which seems a very appropriate medium for anthropomorphized barnyard animals; yet I wouldn’t necessarily prefer that to the sight of Terry Schwab’s priceless entrance as Gander. The floppy-limbed gait and honking were a comic highlight that delighted the kids and their parents too. Cindy Smith was a fine partner for him as Goose, with a similar comic approach. Yet these more broadly-played characters were effectively balanced by a more subtle approach from the enigmatic Julie Dingman-Evans as Charlotte. Moving carefully on her high perch, the actress beautifully used body language to suggest an eight-limbed arachnid with supple grace (her web spinning the first time she writes in her web is particularly striking) and easily brought the requisite pathos of the later scenes in perfect measure. Seth Lieber was a worthy hero as Wilbur, delivering nicely-judged slapstick and lots of heart. Douglas Scott Sorenson was appropriately skeevy but a still-worthy compatriot as Templeton, the rat; and Jon Huffman was a wise and seasoned sheep. Most of the cast do double duty as human characters, but it is as the animals that they have the most impact. Appearing only as humans, Henry Miller was a more-than-capable Avery Arable; and Kylie McGuffey was a heartfelt presence as Fern Arable, Wilbur’s devoted owner and champion.

The design work was exemplary, with particularly nice work from Shana Lincoln on costumes: clothes for humans that are nonetheless slyly suggestive of the animal characters. Wilbur’s wardrobe transitions as he matures from a pink jumper to pastel pink and white loose-fitting suits; while Charlotte’s glamorous party dress proves surprisingly supportive of the spider profile resulting from Dingman-Evans movements.

Charlotte’s Web is a delightful show with enough emotional resonance to reach children in the audience as well as the parents they bring with them.

Charlotte’s Web

May 11 & 18, 2013 @ 11 a.m. & 2 p.m.

StageOne Family Theatre
The Kentucky Center, Bomhard Theater
501 West Main St.
Louisville, KY

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