BWW Review: CHARLOTTE'S WEB at ARDEN THEATRE COMPANY is 'Some Play'
Charlotte's Web is a heartwarming story of a special friendship between a lovable pig and everyone's favorite spider. When a runt pig is born on the Arable farm, a young girl named Fern saves him and nurtures him. She names him Wilbur and helps him grow big and strong. Wilbur grows quickly and is moved to the Zuckerman farm where he befriends a batch of barnyard animals, including a talented spider that weaves words into her web that are crucial to saving Wilbur's life as the story unfurls.
This is not the first time Arden Theatre Company has produced this sweet swine story. Arden's Producing Artistic Director Terrence J. Nolen says, "Charlotte's Web was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I love sharing this story on our stage. Charlotte's Web was our very first Arden Children's Theatre production in 1998 and we produced it a second time in 2011. It is a perennial favorite, and we are thrilled to present it to a whole new generation of children and their families."
Arden Children's Theatre production of Charlotte's Web is "terrific", "radiant" and "humble". The show features a seemingly modern and simple production design. The set is a skeleton of a barn, fashioned from unfinished lumbar, and there is a square patch of dirt, serving as Wilbur's pen, center-stage. The design is smart and very well-utilized, combining beautifully with Thom Weaver's lighting design.
Whit MacLaughlin, who directed Arden's production of Charlotte's Web in 2011, returns to direct the show again. MacLaughlin is clearly seasoned in children's theatre and proves that he knows how to relate to a young audience. This production has great pacing and energy (attributes of effective children's theatre), keeping even the squirmiest students engrossed. The kids in the audience were rapt, yelling "no" as Campbell O'Hare, playing Fern Arable, listed off possible names for the pig. The kids helped her agree that Wilbur was the best-suited name.
MacLaughlin and his stellar cast make the show immersive and include the audience in multiple innovative and imaginative ways. The show is a full-sensory experience: using music, smells, and hands-on games that are unexpected and particularly fun! The ensemble puts fragrant oils onto fans and wafts floral summer scents into the audience. Another favorite moment of mine is at the top of act two, when Wilbur is taken to compete in the county fair. The actors hype up the audience with Wilbur and his friends' excitement for the fair. The cast brings some kids from the audience onto the stage to play a life-size version of Whack-a-Mole and compete in a horserace.
Of course to have a great production of Charlotte's Web, you have to have a great cast of actors! Arden's Charlotte's Web features a talented and committed cast that is energetic and works well with children. I particularly enjoyed watching the actors' mannerisms when they play their animal characters. Adam Howard as Wilbur, perfectly and hilariously embodies a pig (as well as any human could), and subtly transforms into a pig whenever he steps foot into the dirt patch. And I love how Alex Keiper and Alex Bechtel, as Goose and Gander, shed feathers when they are frightened.
One of the most exciting parts of this production is Ayana Strutz, the actress playing Charlotte. Strutz is an acrobat and contortionist, perfect for embodying a spider. She descends from the ceiling in silks, and uses the set as her personal jungle-gym. After the show, she disclosed to the curious kids in the audience that she has only been training as an acrobat for two year after having grown up as a dancer.
Arden's cast also features Campbell O'Hare as Fern Arable, Jo Vito Ramirez as Avery Arable/Reporter/Announcer, Brian Anthony Wilson as Homer Zuckerman/Sheep, Emilie Krause as Edith Zuckerman/Lamb, and J. Hernandez as Lurvy/Templeton.
Overall, this production is very high-energy and engaging, exactly what you would expect from an effective children's theatre production and perfect for kids of all ages.
Arden Theatre Company's Charlotte's Web has been extended and will run through February 3, 2019 on the F. Otto Haas stage. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit https://ardentheatre.org