DHT’s production of Charlotte’s Web is … Some Play

Earlier this week I was assigned my first show to review for Backstage Utah, and so I made the long drive from my home in Magna across the valley to go see Charlotte’s Web at the Draper Historic Theatre.  I guess my reason for being there was obvious to anyone paying attention to me—as I sat there with a mechanical pencil clipped to a composition notebook on my lap, studiously looking through the playbill before curtain—because an attractive woman who was in the row in front of mine with her two Jr. high aged sons easily identified me as a reviewer and told me her older son was also there to review the show for his drama class.  I felt more relaxed knowing I wasn’t the only one there with homework to do after the show.

As I continued to settle in and wait for the show to begin, with families full of energetic young children filling the seats all around me, I took notice of not one but two of the younger cast member’s peaking out at the audience from behind the curtains.  I could only smile at this, remembering my earliest days in theatre when I would attempt the same thing, ignoring my drama teacher’s warnings not to.  It also reminded me that I was about to review a cast full of children and would have to adjust my criticisms accordingly.  This was going to be a different level of overall acting experience than what I had seen earlier in the month at Pinnacle Acting Company’s production of Proof.  I also knew that this was director Michele Rideout’s first time in the director’s chair.  I was interested to see how she had done bringing this cast (a mix of experienced stage veteran’s and first timers) to performance ready.  Just before curtain, Michele was actually kind enough to sit with me after learning I was flying solo for the evening.  As we sat together during act one I thought how amazing it was that neither of us let our nerves show; it being her first show as a director and mine as an official reviewer.

As the play finally began, we were quickly introduced to Fern Arable (played by Hawthorne Academy 8th grader Elisha Garrett) and her small family together at breakfast.  It is at this breakfast that Fern is horrified to learn that her father (armed with an axe) is headed out to the barn to kill the runt from a recent litter of pigs.  She heroically rushes out to save the little piglet and soon thereafter names him Wilbur.  Watching this scene I remembered my first grade teacher Mrs. Williamson reading to me and my classmates from the classic book by E.B. White; upon which this musical is of course based.  It was twenty years ago that I first had Charlotte’s Web read to me and then saw the animated film version, and despite all the time that has passed, I still felt the nostalgia of childhood return to me as the show began to unfold before my eyes.

The first musical number was between Fern and her rescued piglet Wilber (played by young Maddie Sueltz) in which (as I mentioned earlier) the girl names him.  Our two actresses were giving earnest performances but were unfortunately upstaged by the other three Arable family members who were continuing on with their breakfast.  They were silent but still stole focus from where it should have been as they pantomimed a conversation with big gestures and pretend eating motions.  I would suggest to all three actors to tone down there movements during that scene and specifically to Geoff McCombs (playing the father John Arable) to not take unrealistic super speed forkfuls of his imaginary food, especially when he neglects to pretend chewing and swallowing.

When the scene changed, I was impressed by the kitchen set being quickly rolled away and the barn behind it being revealed.  It was just the first of several times that the set (designed by Joey Calkins) impressed me.

The energy on stage began to increase as the Goose and Gander (played by Brooke Wilkins and David Grandpre, respectively) entered with their spot on Scottish accents and their gaggle of adorable goslings.  The silly little goslings reminded me of the Bird-kateers from Sesame Street and seemed to be having the most fun on stage of anyone else in the cast.  They weren’t playing pigs but they sure were naturals at hamming it up.  The talent and energy kept coming with Lurvey the clog dancing farm hand (Matt Adams), a juggling Templeton the rat (Erik Nielson) and the presence of stage veteran Gordon S. Jones who gave a great performance as farmer Homer Zuckerman.  Gordon has a knack for engaging audiences and getting laughs even with weaker material.

The pivotal moment of act one is when Wilber, living in the barn, meets the graceful and articulate spider Charlotte (played by the beautiful Becky Davis) who will save and change his life.  Becky gave a wonderfully sincere and talented performance both as an actress and a singer.  Her costume—complete with four spider limbs to go with her actual arms and legs—was an elegant black ballerina outfit with matching tutu and a red heart on her chest in place of a black widow’s red spot.  Charlotte moved with fluid grace and as she spun words into her web on Wilber’s behalf, music accompanied each wave of her hands as if her web was a magical harp.  The first message Charlotte writes for Wilber is “Some Pig”.  Upon seeing this mysterious message spun into Charlotte’s web, farm hand Lurvey causes a commotion on the farm when he excitedly calls for Homer Zuckerman to come see it.  Wilber is spooked by the shouting and runs away, inciting a harried chase around the farm.  Finally the chase ends and Lurvey shows Homer what the web says.  With great sincerity Gordon (Homer) placed his hat to his heart and declared: “A Miracle has happened on our farm!”

After intermission, the focus of the show seemed to change from the animals on the Zuckerman farm to the teenage shenanigans at the county fair.  Two teenage girls battled for prominence and the cute little songs from the first act were replaced with more rebellious offerings such as the obnoxious song “Don’t”, in which the teenagers at the fair complain about the limits their parents try to impose on them.

Thankfully however the focus of the show soon returned to Wilber and the other animals at the fair, including stowaways Templeton and Charlotte.  We are introduced to Wilber’s blue ribbon rival Uncle Pig (played by David Grandpre who earlier played the Gander).  The children in the audience laughed especially loud when the boastful Uncle’s ears fell off doing a proud snort.

As the play moved along, an observant eye would notice that Charlotte’s dark hair kept getting greyer with each appearance.  Her movements also grew more and more labored.  For those adults in the audience like me who still remembered the events of the book, it was a clear foreshadowing sign of Charlotte’s unfortunate fate, as she visibly aged so quickly before our eyes.  My favorite scene in the play was the heart to heart between Charlotte and Wilber just before the weakening spider spins her final word web on Wilber’s behalf.  During this touching scene, we can hear the fireworks at the fair, but do not see them.  I would’ve liked to have seen flashes on stage to accompany each boom sound, but even without that effect, the scene worked well.  In the scene, Charlottes reveals to Wilber that she will soon lay her egg sack and shortly after die alone before any of her spider-lings can be born.  Later, Wilber responds to Templeton’s glib attitude toward Charlotte’s abbreviated existence by saying: “A good life is much more important than a long life.”

I agree.

As you all know (SPOILER ALERT if you don’t know) Charlotte dies after laying her egg sack.  Wilber doesn’t win the blue ribbon at the fair but is honored as a terrific radiant and humble pig.  Homer Zuckerman promises to give Wilber a nice life back home at the farm.  And Templeton helps Wilber bring Charlotte’s egg sack back to the Zuckerman’s farm.  When the eggs hatch most of the 514 spider-lings fly away in the breeze on strands of featherlike spider silk, but three remain behind, looking like miniature versions of their late mother.  Wilber is quick to befriend the three young spiders and tell them all about Charlotte.

“In life, so few people can be considered a true friend or a good writer,” Wilber tells them.  “Charlotte was both.”

I can only hope someone will say the same about me some day.

All in all, Charlotte’s Web is not a perfect show.  The sets and costumes are top notch but the songs and choreography are lacking.  The talent and experience levels of the cast vary greatly from one performer to the next, but all of them show enthusiasm and a desire to entertain their audience, which from listening to the children laughing and reacting in the theatre all around me, they most certainly accomplished that.  If you’re looking for an engaging, colorful and family friendly show to take your children to, or just want to remember an old classic from your own childhood, Charlotte’s Web at the Draper Historic Theatre is worth seeing.  Wilber may be some pig, and Charlotte’s Web is some play.

Charlotte’s Web presented by Draper Historic Theatre, performs Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays from May 6 to 28, curtain at 7 PM. Tickets are $9 for Adults, $7 for Seniors/Students/Military and $5 for Children 12 and Under. For details and show times visit DHT online at www.drapertheatre.org.


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