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Review: Nashville Children's Theatre Returns With Imaginative and Immersive CHARLOTTE'S WEB

Celebrating Its 90th Season, NCT Proves Once Again They're Simply The Best

Review: Nashville Children's Theatre Returns With Imaginative and Immersive CHARLOTTE'S WEB
Meggan Utech as Charlotte in NCT's Charlotte's Web.

When a theater company has been around for 90 years, it should come as absolutely no surprise that its creative team knows exactly what titles are best-suited to a particular moment in time. And at Nashville Children's Theatre, the oldest performing arts entity in Middle Tennessee and one of the oldest theaters for younger audiences in the whole of the United States, artistic director Ernie Nolan and his remarkable staff have proven time and again they, quite simply, know what they are doing.

Welcoming audiences to an NCT production for the first time in 16 months - albeit outside and away from its traditional theater space in downtown Nashville and relocated to a working farm west of Nashville - Nolan and his team have crafted the best possible production to herald the company's reemergence. Presented just in time to celebrate its 90th season, Charlotte's Web exemplifies the best of NCT (which has a much-deserved and altogether stellar reputation the world over) with a sustained sense of creativity and unbridled imagination.

Review: Nashville Children's Theatre Returns With Imaginative and Immersive CHARLOTTE'S WEB
James Rudolph II, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva,
Deyonte Jenkins and Darius Aushay

Nolan's choice to cast Charlotte's Web with an all-black ensemble (Meggan Utech, Addi King, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, James Rudolph II, DeYonte Jenkins and Darius Aushay bring their characters to life with much charm, heart and soul) is a heartfelt way to underscore Nashville Children's Theatre's commitment to the diversity of its audience and its artistic lineage. Further, it shows the breadth and depth of the Nashville theater's rich pool of talent, and provides a commitment (or recommitment, if you will) to achieving social change while reflecting the reality of the world with iconoclastic zeal.

To put it simply and as forthrightly as possible: Nashville Children's Theatre is simply the best, most consistent purveyor of live theater in this region, continuing to push the envelope and to challenge us all to be better. And they've been doing that for almost a century now.

With theaters everywhere shuttered due to a deadly pandemic for more than a year, the decision to come back, to welcome audiences to share in the wonder of live performance again, is at once perilously daunting and dazzlingly exhilarating. By selecting as its first show back, the time-honored and classic tale of a young piglet named Wilbur (played by Aushay, who more than anything wants to be loved, even more so than he wants a trough full of the tastiest slop imaginable) and his undying devotion to his best friend Charlotte (the glamorously maternal and ethereal Utech), a "bloodthirsty yet kind" spider who formulates a plan to allow Wilbur to live to old age.

Based on the beloved 1952 book by E.B. White (according to Publishers Weekly, it remains the best-selling children's paperback in the history of publishing), Joseph Robinette's dramatization is as fanciful and fun as one could possibly hope for, but it somehow retains the timeless energy and rhythms of White's original tale. Laconic and breezy when it needs to be (with a sense of urgency added when the plot demands) Charlotte's Web is a story of love and loss, of life and death, of loyalty and commitment, and a tribute to friendship that allows children - and adults - to discover ways to express their own emotions and to better understand the depths of feelings that are sure to follow in the story's wake.

Review: Nashville Children's Theatre Returns With Imaginative and Immersive CHARLOTTE'S WEB
Meggan Utech, Addi King, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva
and Darius Aushay

Amid the trying times of the past year-and-a-half, Charlotte's Web seemingly has greater resonance, reminding us that even in the face of death, life goes on and, no matter what, goodness will prevail. Perhaps that explains why, in the production's final, vibrant scene you're likely to shed tears, your heart swelling with emotion at the story being told and pride in the way the company delivers the time-honored message.

Surrounded by the bucolic setting of West Glow Farms that lends massive amounts of authenticity to the tale set on Zimmerman's farm, Charlotte's Web is something of an immersive experience. The various sights and sounds of the countryside lend themselves to a sense of immediacy in time and space. Scenic designer Scott Leathers provides a picture-perfect setting in the multi-functional outdoor space at West Glow Farms which easily and somewhat miraculously transports audiences to the various scenes both in the barnyard and at the state fair, with the ambient sounds providing a catalyst for the imagination. In addition, Leathers' evocation of Charlotte's web, upon which she spins the wonders of words that help save Wilbur's very life, is particularly effective and visually compelling.

Renee Sola's clever and wonderfully conceived costumes clothes the actors in high style, helping them to create the various characters in Robinette's dramatization. Sola's costumes are so beautifully designed and high functioning that they help to showcase the actors' abilities to execute quick changes that are barely noticeable so speedy are they that one character smoothly morphs into another in no time at all. Or so it would seem.

Review: Nashville Children's Theatre Returns With Imaginative and Immersive CHARLOTTE'S WEB
Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva and Darius Aushay

Providing musical underscoring (and some jazzy pre-show entertainment), band leader/drummer Ben Andrews, saxophonist Max Dvorin and pianist Cassidy Gephart add to the production's delightful sense of theatricality with unyielding charm and consummate professionalism.

Nolan's direction keeps the play's action moving along at a fair pace, with the story unfolding with cinematic ease before an audience more accustomed to watching such stories play out on a screen, whether large or small. His splendid cast of actors perform with particular grace, intelligently creating such a richness of characters that it is easy to forget Charlotte's Web is acted by a six-person ensemble. Credit it due to the sublime talents who comprise that ensemble, a veritable who's who of Nashville theater.

Review: Nashville Children's Theatre Returns With Imaginative and Immersive CHARLOTTE'S WEB
James Rudolph II, Darius Aushay and
Meggan Utech

Addi King, who plays Fern, the young girl who first falls in love with her pet piglet, is an eighth-grader at Nashville University School, and is part of Nashville theater royalty (her father is Bakari King, one of local theater's most prolific artists). Aushay, so wonderfully appealing and downright lovable as Wilbur, is a Nashville native now based in New York, was once part of NCT's Emerging Artist program while growing up in Music City.

Utech is elegant and regal as the eponymous Charlotte, with her tremendous stage presence ensuring all eyes are focused on her while she creates onstage magic. Whitcomb-Oliva, Jenkins and Rudolph are given the liberty to put their full range of talents on display, imbuing their various characters with much personality while employing different vocal techniques to firmly establish each individual character. In addition, the trio of seasoned and beloved performers show off their physical dexterity by executing the aforementioned quick changes abetted by Sola's picture-perfect costumes.

Charlotte's Web. A story by E.B. White. Dramatized by Joseph Robinette. Directed by Ernie Nolan. Stage managed by Rachael Silverman. Presented by Nashville Children's Theatre. At West Glow Farms, 1296 Brush Creek Road, Kingston Springs. Through July 17. Running time: 1 hour (with no intermission). For tickets, call (615) 252-4675. For details, go to www.nashvillechildrenstheatre.org.

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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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