Arden’s Radiant ‘Web’
By Joseph Robinette (adapted from the E.B. White children’s book)
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
Arden Theatre Company, F. Otto Haas Stage, Philadelphia
Extended through Feb. 10, 2012
At the Arden Theater there is so much fun getting caught up in Joseph Robinette’s fine stage adaptation of E.B. White’s children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” directed by Whit MacLaughlin, . MacLaughlin is known for tech wizardry, but he achieves just as much magic in this production, with minimal stage effects. The agile cast of nine captivated the preteen crowd at a recent late afternoon Sunday show with not a squirmy seat, or iPod, in sight. The story is full of make-believe, but also harsh reality.
Wilbur (Aubie Merrylees), the new piglet that is too sickly, the runt, is saved by Fern (Emilie Krause), the farmer’s adolescent daughter who nurses him to health. Wilbur has to put up with being taunted by her brother, Avery (Brandon Pierce), but otherwise he has a nice life. He befriends Goose and Gander (Charlie DelMarcelle and Leah Walton), Sheep (Brian Anthony Wilson), Lamb (Amanda Schoonover) and even Templeton (Anthony Lawton), a very scurvy rat. But mostly he is helped by Charlotte (Sarah Gliko) who spells out with her web just what a special pig Wilbur is. Cycle of farm life lessons, the threat of becoming tomorrow’s bacon and farm hokum doesn’t get in the way of animated fun for kids of all ages. DelMarcelle provides some banjo ditties and there is spirited audience participation at the county fair where Wilbur is up for best pig in the county award. Except for Merrylees and Gliko, all of the actors jump back and forth from their human roles to animal roles in a blink of an eye, using hats and movement.
This show has a golden heart and a spirited cast. Brian Anthony Wilson as salt-of-the-earthy farmer Zuckerman and the wise Sheep, who spells out the truth to Wilbur. Emilie Krause is charmingly earnest as she tries to grow up and still be sensitive to all things great and small. DelMarcelle strums on his guitar or serenades with a field harmonica as the farmhand and is completely in sync with Walton as the goosey mates who repeat everything thrice in their time off from procreating. Lawton, Arden’s principal theatrical chameleon, is rattier than ratty as Templeton, except when he’s not, in his Matrix leather, red-eyed specs and really skanky tail.
Spiderman may have lock-and-load cables, but Charlotte drops down from the rafters seamlessly and hers is a crafty and elegant voice and spider dance. She is note perfect playing her flute in the eaves or reclining in her sheer black/blood-red bodysuit midair while she imparts survival tips to Wilbur. This is a great performance. Merrylees also is completely engaging, whether he is digging through his slop or rolling around his hay. Credit for the movement goes to MacLaughlin’s choreographically dramatic eye. David P. Gordon’s splintery set design keeps to spare, rustic barn cutaway to show this is a hard life for human and rat on the farm, with Chris Colucci’s sound design, providing deft atmospherics. The Arden’s children’s theater series continues to keeps us kids in our seats while our imaginations soar.