note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Janine de Souza
E.B. White's classic CHARLOTTE'S WEB spins to life at the Wheelock Family Theatre.
Although this production is not a musical, it does stay faithful page by page to the original manuscript. This means that young and older readers alike will recognize E. B. White's elegant dialogue. White's passion for nature is evident in CHARLOTTE'S WEB and his other series, "Stuart Little" and "The Trumpet of the Swan." This story of friendship between a soft-spoken spider and a spring pig with a propensity to faint is set against the backdrop of an bustling barnyard. What unwinds soon after is a frank and open discussion about the circle of life. White doesn't "dumb down," "Disnify," or shy away from the brutal truth. Some animals will die. Some will live. Sometimes there are "happily every after" and well…¦sometimes there aren't. Probably the most important lesson to be gleaned is that a deep friendship can comfort, stretch, and even transcend death. For a children's story, White explores some heady issues.
The story begins with Wilbur (Robert Saoud), a runt who is spared the axe by the pleadings of Fern Arable (Grace Brakeman), John Arable's (Harold S. Withee) compassionate daughter. With his life spared, Wilbur soon finds himself living at the Zuckerman's farm, his fate almost certainly to line someone's plate as a side of ham hocks or smoked bacon. Surely, this little pig is going to the market! But soon, with the help of Charlotte (Merle Perkins), a capable and acrobatic arachnid and the encouragement of all his barnyard friends, the gregarious geese (W. Yvonne Murphy and Gerard Slattery), the stylishly Scottish sheep (Sarah Kindleberger and Charlotte Horan), the ravenous rodent, Templeton (John Davin), Wilbur becomes an instant celebrity and State Fair sensation. Everyone wants to see the wise words woven into the spider's web! Her plan works brilliantly, although in the end, one life is spared and another lost as Charlotte succumbs the vigors of old age and fatigue. As 415 tiny black spiders burst forth from their egg sack, three decide to call Wilburâ€™s pen their home. It is a fitting memory and tribute from his friend, Charlotte.
Under Jane Staab's direction, each actor helps capture the attention and imagination of the young crowd, but there are a few missed opportunities. Since kids love a good chase scene, why not bring the cast through the aisles? The kids loved Templeton's one foray into the audience. Who doesn't love a good rat tickle? All of the other shows that I've seen at Wheelock have been so elaborate and interactive, I was surprised there wasn't more. And, a few catchy tunes for the car ride home would have been welcomed.
However, there was plenty of laughter all-round to go with the lesson about friendship and that's the most important thing.