Reviewed by Wendy Irvine
How daunting it must be to bring E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to an intimate stage, with a modest budget, and a small – but completely dedicated – cast. I’m sure every person involved in this production wanted to get the show just right to honor the classic story and bring a delightful performance to our community’s children – and get it right they did!
Bravo Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theater…you’ve done it again!
You can trust that nary a spoiler will be revealed here – yes, we all know how this story goes, and I won’t be giving away jokes or creative scenery. I will reveal that Audra Honaker’s Charlotte is a gorgeous spider – right up to her sparkly lids and avant-garde top hat– and Samuel Elton’s Wilbur is hilarious, right down to his slapstick silliness and pink high-tops. The barnyard animals are a scream: My kids were talking about the goose and gander long after the show ended and the sheep and lamb take cute to an entirely new level. (Hello adorable Hanna Piper!)
Ellie Wilson’s Fern (loved you as baby kangaroo from Seussical!) and Don Arnold’s Avery (my boys loved your line about crashing two planes!) play their well-loved roles with such talent that it’s easy to forget we’re watching actors on a stage. And the adults playing Fern and Avery’s family and farmhand bring warmth and goodness to their roles providing a necessary foundation to heavy subject matter. (There’s even a bit of yesteryear helicopter-parenting humor that assured I got elbowed by my son.)
Oh, and Templeton, did I almost forget you? Hardly, because you, my dear self-absorbed rat, drew genuine laughter out of my too-cool-for-this-world 11-year-old son. He loved you, and identified with your round tummy and incessant food-motivation.
But it wasn’t Templeton who grabbed me (funny as he was!) as much as Isabella Cipollina, Evelyn Dumeer, Adalaide O’Connor, and Laney Yoo, the young narrators, who guided us through the story. How can so much talent be packed into such young people? These four sang and acted throughout – Isabella even played violin with lovely aplomb. And the four tied the show up seamlessly with an incredibly sweet ending.
But is the show right for your kids? Can little ones handle such a weighty topic? Throughout the first half of the show Wilbur is repeatedly in fear of being made into ham, yet we see Fern protecting him again and again with ferocity. Then we see Charlotte come to Wilbur’s rescue. So the audience never has true concern that our Wilbur is in any real danger. And the silly, slapstick humor that tickles kids no-end is sprinkled throughout the performance.
But as we do know, Charlotte dies at the end of the show. While the play focuses on her life and all that she brings to Wilbur’s life, the play also handles her death with respect and tender care. The more mature Wilbur realizes – along with the audience – that Charlotte’s children will remain giving Wilbur more “true friends.”
While not a musical, yesteryear songs are woven into the story. Our grandparents would immediately recognize every song and I’ll admit that when those talented narrators sang “You Are My Sunshine” I was missing my own grandma. (Kleenex a must.)
However, not all of the songs are tearjerkers. One of my boys left the theater singing “Stay on the Sunny Side of Life.” The songs are backed by Lucas Hall who plays acoustic guitar just beautifully. (That’s some farmhand!)
Your corkscrew tail bottom line: Charlotte’s Web is sweet and lively for kids ages three to ten. While the story wades into the deepest subjects of life: true friendship, sacrifice, death, and life beginning anew – our Virginia Rep performers are such agile players that they bring the comfort of grandma’s knitted blanket and good fun to an otherwise sorrowful subject.
Charlotte’s Web is playing at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theater at Willow Lawn through November 9, 2014. Show runs ninety minutes, including 10-minute intermission. (Ticket price: $18 per; group price: $14.) Tickets are available at Virginia Rep or call 804-282-2620.