BWW Review: CHARLOTTE'S WEB at Imagination Stage
E. B. White's Charlotte's Web has been adapted in many ways. There was an animated movie musical back in the 70s, a live action film a few years back, and a stage adaptation that Theatreworks USA toured around the country for years. Imagination Stage in Bethesda is currently presenting the latter as its holiday attraction. The creative team takes a very heavy-handed approach to material that isn't that light to begin with, unfortunately.
Joseph Robinette's stage adaptation follows White's novel very closely. Fern Arable (Moira Todd) lives on a farm with her parents (Shanara Gabrielle and Jonathan Feuer). When a litter of pigs is born Fern thinks it's an injustice that her father is going to kill the runt of the litter and begs him to let her raise it. He agrees and she names the small pig Wilbur. Wilbur (Timotheus German) grows up fast and soon is sent down the road to Fern's uncle Homer Zuckerman's (Matthew Schleigh) farm where there is more room for him to run and play.
It is there Wilbur meets a cornucopia of animals. We have Templeton (Feuer), a rat with the appetite the size of an elephant. Then there is the goose (Schleigh) who constantly repeats certain words over and over, and an old Jewish sheep (Javier del Pilar).
Wilbur is told by his "friends" that the reason he is fed so well is so Zuckerman can eventually kill him and cut him up into bacon. This obviously upsets Wilbur as he wants to live life to the fullest. It is here that we meet Charlotte (Gabrielle) a spider with a heart of gold and a brain that never stops working.
Zuckerman thinks it's a good idea to put Wilbur into a contest at the county fair. If he wins, he promises Fern he can live out the rest of his days. Meanwhile Charlotte thinks Zuckerman and the judges need a little extra persuasion. Superlatives like "some pig," "radiant," and "humble" start to appear in her web. This causes a sensation throughout the town. I think you know the rest.
From that plot description it's clear that White's novel is not all puppies and rainbows. There is a constant undertone of death throughout.
Director Kathryn Chase Bryer's take on White's story makes the material even heavier than it already is. At least for me, there is no humor in her staging and there are plenty of missed opportunities to lighten the mood.
I am going to preface the following statements about the acting by saying that I've seen most of the performers in other productions and have always enjoyed their work previously.
A prime example of a missed opportunity is with Jonathan Feuer's Templeton. Here is a character with so many comic possibilities. He could have been broad and flamboyant, which would have lightened the mood every once in a while. Bryer chooses to have the character played more subdued. In my opinion, this goes against who Templeton is.
The strangest of Bryer's directorial choices concerns how Charlotte is handled. She has Shanara Gabrielle turn into an acrobat. She scales this huge silk suspended from the grid. This, in theory, is an interesting way to depict Charlotte spinning away, but it also makes it hard for Gabrielle to give a dramatic performance because she is trying to hang on for dear life. I also missed the warmth that Charlotte usually has.
On the plus side Matthew Schleigh as the repetitive goose gives a welcome boost to the proceedings. Moira Todd, as Fern, also gives a heartfelt performance.
Thankfully Timotheus German's performance of Wilbur is a good one because without a strong characterization, you have no one to root for.
The production elements are attractive enough. Andrew Cohen's rustic set frames White's story perfectly. Sarah Tundermann's lighting sets the mods for each scene nicely. Robert Croghan's costumes are imaginative throughout.
I have to say though as much as I like live music in a production, if you are going to have a grand piano for Musical Director Deborah Jacobsen to play onstage, you might want to dress it so it looks like it belongs in a barnyard. It is clean and pristine.
Overall Charlotte's Web at Imagination Stage plods along with only a few good things to keep it from being a total wash. Sometimes doing a different take on well known material doesn't work in your favor.
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission for school performances. 95 minutes including intermission for public performances.
Charlotte's Web runs through January 7, 2018 at Imagination Stage, which is located at 4908 Auburn Ave in Bethesda, MD.
For tickets, click here.