Tuesday, September 16, 2014

theatre review CHARLOTTE'S WEB, Childsplay, Sept. 13

Click here to read my review of Childsplay's production of Charlotte's Web at Talkin Broadway.

Debra K. Stevens and Kyle Sorrell
Childsplay presents some of the most heartfelt and moving theatrical experiences for families in the Phoenix area. Their current production of Joseph Robinette's adaptation of E. B. White's classic 1952 children's novel,Charlotte's Web, doesn't disappoint. It has an exceptional cast and beautiful creative elements that combine to expertly tell this well-known story of a pig named Wilbur and the spider who helps save his life.

White's beautiful story of how Charlotte's ability to spin words of praise about Wilbur into her web that gain him media attention and help save him from being turned into bacon is heartwarming yet also full of complex characters and life and death situations. Robinette's adaptation doesn't skirt the adult topics brought up in White's book, but presents them in a realistic manner. It is a popular tale and this is actually a return engagement, with Childsplay last presenting this play seven years ago.
The cast of adult actors, many of them having been in numerous past Childsplay productions, are terrific in their ability to play the various humans and farm animals in the story, with many of them playing multiple roles. Kyle Sorrell's portrayal of Wilbur is charming with a soft voice that projects the sweet disposition of a very young pig. As the newborn runt with wide eyes, Sorrell shows Wilbur's eagerness to make new friends and his desire to learn, but also his fear of certain things. Debra K. Stevens is grand, majestic and wise as Charlotte, crafting a spider that anyone would want for their friend. Her voice is both forceful and charming, exactly as you would imagine a spider's would be to charm its prey into the web; fortunately for Wilbur, Charlotte's web is used to help him. Jon Gentry gives Templeton a self-centered, comical playfulness as the rat who is more concerned about eating than anything else.

Katie McFadzen, who was excellent as the lead in Actors Theatre's Good People last spring, is funny and touching as several characters, including the Goose with a tendency to repeat words. Kate Haas is quite believable as the young, sweet faced Fern who goes out of her way to ensure Wilbur survives. As Fern's aunt and uncle, Yolanda London and Danny Karapetian are charming, with London also comical as the wise old Sheep. Drew Swaine nicely rounds out the cast as Fern's brother Avery. They are a well-directed ensemble, more than capable of making the quick change from one character to the next, from human to animal and back again, with ease.

Director Anthony Runfola manages the skilled company effectively. While there is plenty of humor in Robinette's adaptation, Runfola doesn't rush the serious topics of the play, ensuring that they are presented in a matter of fact way to not shock the young members of the audience that also allows them to possibly learn about something they may not have known.

From the cute baby pig puppet that Kate Haas manipulates to the simple yet extremely effective way of showing how Charlotte weaves the words into her web, Childsplay's production is simple in its design, yet also has a few touches of theatrical imagination. Adriana Diaz's costumes are perfect in how they nicely depict the numerous animals, farm workers and fair-goers in E. B. White's novel. The cast wears various quilted pieces of clothing for the animals, including a cute hat with pig ears for Wilbur, a wool sweater and reading glasses for the old Sheep, and an outfit of patches and a very long tail for Templeton. For the human characters, a nice collection of simple gingham and plaid country folk outfits sets them apart from the animal characters and for Charlotte, a sparkling and shimmering ballerina dress, lined with tulle, makes her appear elegant. Katie Peck's wig and make-up design help the cast quickly become the numerous characters they portray.

Debra K. Stevens
The two-story barn set by William Symington is large and realistic with a painted farmland backdrop and a giant web for Charlotte to move around on and spin her words. The use of long shag carpet to represent the bales of hay and the straw floor of Wilbur's pen is inventive. Tim Monson's lighting design perfectly shows the hot days and cool evenings on the farm and magically makes the fireworks at a fair appear to explode over our heads. Christopher Neumeyer effectively uses sound effects of barn noises and inclement weather as well as folksy transitional music in his sound design.
While Charlotte's Web touches upon some serious life lessons that teach children about life and death it more importantly shows how friendship, bravery, simple acts of kindness, and helping out others are some of the most important things in life to practice. The play is a sweet telling of the classic children's novel, and the Childsplay production of this classic story has an exceptional cast of gifted actors, colorful sets and costumes, and solid direction that bring the story wondrously to life.
Note: Charlotte's Web deals with some grown up topics, including the slaughtering of a pig and the death of one of the main characters. So, while the show is geared toward families, Childsplay recommends it for children five and older—and I'd expect some of them to ask questions on the ride home about the themes that have been brought up.

Charlotte's Web at Childsplay runs through October 12th, 2014, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0)

Photos: Tim Trumbule

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