“Charlotte’s Web” Enchants as it Educates

Reviewed by Carolyn Gillespie21408_show_portrait_large

The opening night of Flint Community Players’ Charlotte’s Web was packed with parents and children who swung in to visit – or revisit – that other famous web-slinger and the pig who loved her. Created by E. B. White, by day a writer for The New Yorker magazine, this charming tale has been attracting audiences since it was published in 1952. Several adaptations are available, including a live-action film featuring a cast of A-listers, an animated musical version, this play version, and even a video game. Apparently White’s inspiration came from a pair of incidents in his own life, one involving a sickly pig he nursed when he was a child, and the other, a spider’s egg sack he watched over in his bedroom when he was an adult. Whatever the inspiration, he spun a tale that has caught many a young reader in a delightful web of its own.

Dan Gerics directs the large cast of 24 which includes 18 young people, moving them around the multi-leveled set on FCP’s small stage with good effect. He also joins the band Cavanaugh Plus 2 to provide pre-show and incidental Irish music. The set is handsomely painted with a prominent ingenious web (of course), and a deftly painted sky that is enhanced throughout the evening by Scooter Griffus manipulating the theatre’s meagre lighting equipment. I don’t know whether the script calls for a “sound chorus”, but this little group of six off-stage actors provided live sound effects for the first half of the show. It was a nice touch and I was hoping to hear more from them as the evening proceeded. The costumes created by Laura Kline and her crew appropriately evoke the 1950’s rural setting, and some are very clever indeed! The eponymous spider (Jenna Wells) sports all eight legs that can move in a synchronized fashion. Her initial appearance is quite magical. The Goose (Marissa Cipriani) and Gander (Therese Wofford) are decked out with orange feet and ingenious bills, and Templeton the Rat (Molly Jones) sports a dapper outfit befitting her arrogant, cynical portrayal.

Performances vary in skill level. Clara Usealman does a splendid job as Wilbur the pig with her natural and sympathetic delivery. Charlotte is a worthy hero. She is constantly in motion (is this to mesmerize us?) and handles the awkward task of spinning her messages with some aplomb. I imagine she will become more efficient as the run continues! Fern and Avery Arable light up the stage every time they appear. The three young narrators, Sophia Johnston, Josh Beauchamp, and Edith Pendell do a fine, clear job of storytelling, aiding in the transitions from scene to scene. Many of the adult actors’ performances are quite broad, earning laughter from the children in the audience.

Opening night had its glitches, of course. Latecomers delayed the curtain for 15 minutes, including a false start. When the show finally got underway, the lights came up, but nothing happened for several seconds until the sound chorus kicked in. The soundscape was so charming that I wished they had begun in the dark to set the scene for us. The most pressing concern, however, was that I missed about a third of the dialogue. Admittedly, I was sitting in the back row, but more attention to low volume, under-articulated text, and/or dropping inflections at the end of sentences is never amiss.

If you don’t know the story, you should probably be alerted to the fact that death is a major theme throughout, beginning with the sinister axe with which Mr. Arable intends to kill the runt of the pig’s litter until he is persuaded to spare it – temporarily. The threat of the slaughterhouse constantly hangs over Wilbur’s head, and Charlotte’s impending demise is referenced several times (female spiders do die after depositing their egg sacks). “After all, what’s a life anyway,” says Charlotte. “We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” On the other hand, the themes of friendship and re-birth are even stronger. “Friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world,” Wilbur muses. And he tends Charlotte’s egg sack until the babies hatch, and three of them take Charlotte’s place in the barn. The web of life continues.

Charlotte’s Web continues tonight and tomorrow (July 14 & 15) @ 2:30pm. Tonight’s performance (July 14) @ 7:30pm will be signed for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. For tickets and more information contact the box office at (810) 441-9302 or reach them online at http://www.flintcommunityplayers.com

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