One of the most beloved classics of children’s literature is Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White’s 1952 novel has seen stage and film adaptations over the years. I can’t imagine (pun intended) a more glorious stage version than the one that opened this weekend at Imagination Stage.
I also imagine that few reading this review will be unfamiliar with the story of the runt pig Wilbur, who is saved from early slaughter by the plucky young girl Fern. Fern finds a home for Wilbur in a neighbor’s barn. Wilbur, though, still faces a bleak future: fattened up to play his role in the food chain that is a defining part of farm life.
The news of this bleak fate is broken to him by other barn denizens: the resourceful rat Templeton and a somewhat fatalistic sheep.
But Wilbur has bonded with an unexpected new friend: the spider Charlotte, who makes it her mission to avoid her new bud’s becoming bacon.
The farmer Zuckerman and, indeed, the whole town become wildly impressed when words proclaiming the virtues of Wilbur begin to appear in Charlotte’s web.
This production begins intriguingly as the cast sets the barnyard milieu with actor-created sound and music. Although not a musical per se (though there is, I believe, one original song), this show is a wonderfully musical experience.
And though it’s not a John Doyle production (he’s the director who does Sondheim with all the actors playing instruments — Patti LuPone tooting a tuba, for instance), the cast of six play guitar, banjo, violin, harmonica, and flute, joining in the music-making with Deborah Jacobson, the Arranger and Music Director, who also plays piano and clarinet on-stage.The result is a wonderfully textured sound-scape that adds immeasurably to the evening — and that includes folk songs that my kids know from their Pete Seeger CD. (Joseph Payne designed sound.)
The play has been adapted by Joseph Robinette, and I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know the source book well or recently enough to be able to report on how faithful the adaptation is, nor what, if anything, has been changed or edited out. That said, nothing feels contrary to the spirit of the original; nothing jars us out of the mid-20th Century rural world in which the story takes place.
The design and the staging are ingenious, appropriately magical, and build to a satisfyingly poignant ending. (Relax; no spoilers!)
Andrew Cohen’s set provides a striking reveal of the titular web, as well as of Charlotte’s writings. As lit by Sarah Tundermann, this is a rich visual production.
closes January 7, 2017
Details and tickets
Shanara Gabrielle is not only the Movement Director, she also plays Charlotte. Her aerial work is breathtakingly impressive. Her stage presence is exotic and striking, beautifully giving her the necessary otherness that will enchant the audience along with Wilbur. It’s not an easy trick to layer onto that the increasing fatigue felt by the impressively multi-tasking arachnid, but she accomplishes it.
Timotheus German subtly suggests porcine qualities while delivering a wonderfully witty and energetic Wilbur. Like most of the rest of the cast, he sings gorgeously; he has, in addition, a adroit comic sensibility that is perfect for the occasion.
Director Kathryn Chase Bryer finds just the right balance as she guides the other actors through a quick-change succession of characters, often leap-frogging from one back to its predecessor. The characterizations are distinct and colorful, but also subtle and real enough that we engage with and care about the people — even when they’re animals. And they are juggling a lot: attaching and detaching tails; picking up and putting down instruments and set pieces.
Javier del Pilar, after playing the Eeyore-like Sheep and Fern’s younger brother (and that role involves a wickedly impressive slo-mo fall), comes out as Uncle the Pig, a rival to Wilbur. Aided by Costume Designer Robert Croghan with a bulk-adding outfit, del Pilar achieves a “wow moment” transformation.
Moira Todd’s Fern is a terrifically down-to-earth entry into the story, though Todd has less to do than others outside of that role. However, she does play a state fair spectator, along with del Pilar (as memory serves), and the couple they played got a special shout-out I overheard on the way out.
Kudos to Matthew Schleigh who, as both goose and gander, is the only actor who has to do double-duty in the same scene. He’s also spot-on as farmer Zuckerman.
I knew I was going to love this cast and this production early on, watching Jonathan Feuer as Fern’s father: understated (in the right way), crystal clear work. It was then a joy to see him morph into the wide-eyed farm-hand and into Templeton, the opportunistic rat you love to love.
Okay, a few tiny quibbles: without electronic instruments, did this show really need to be mic’d? I know that a thrust stage with a wide audience is a challenge, but it undercuts the cool effect of actors in the audience if you don’t realize they’re behind you, because their voices are coming from in front of you. (Admittedly, this is a pet peeve.)
I was seated audience far-left, and there were a few scenes when I was watching someone’s back for what felt like too long a time. The set is impressive, and I’d rather see actors shifting it than have the rhythm of the play interrupted to conceal that work, but…let’s just say it’s not entirely effortless.
But these are mere quibbles. This is one of the best pieces of theatre for young audiences I’ve seen and I would recommend it whole-heartedly.
And not only for young audiences. I know a lot of people who love that book and would really dig this version, and who would be as moved as I was by evening’s end.
Charlotte’s Web by Joseph Robinette, based on the book by E.B. White. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Featuring Jonathan Feuer, Shanara Gabrielle, Timotheus German, Deborah Jacobson, Javier del Pilar, Matthew Schleigh, Moira Todd. Music Director: Deborah Jacobson. Movement Director: Shanara Gabrielle. Scenic Designer: Andrew Cohen. Costume Designer: Robert Croghan. Lighting Designer: Sarah Tundermann. Sound Designer: Joseph Payne. Stage Manager: Madison Bahr. Produced by Imagination Stage. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.