Chicago Theatre Review
Spinning a Humble Classic into Magic
Charlotte’s Web – Emerald City Theatre
Long before Harry Potter took over kids’ bookshelves as one of their favorite novels, E. B. White penned this charming story about what it means to be a true friend. This 1952 classic that continues to be the best-loved children’s book of all time (and has a place in the heart of every adult who’s familiar with it) is currently a theatrical family event playing in the shadow of the Hancock Building. With its easy-going style, its recollections of a simpler time when rope swings, the smell of newly-baled hay and the thrill of a county fair filled a child’s life this story of the unlikely bond between a runt pig and a gray barn spider speaks to the heart. White knew how to capture the soul of living within a simple sentence or two and this translates to the stage in Emerald City’s “radiant” new production.
Directed by Artistic Director Ernie Nolan, Joseph Robinette’s dramatic version proves true to White’s most perfect, popular novel. The play features all the main characters and brims with gentle humor and family values. While Nolan has chosen to produce the non-musical version of this script, he still injects a ubiquitous musical element throughout his production in the form of a country band. The script features several narrators to transition the story from chapter to chapter. Many of his actors demonstrate their skill as musicians as well as being accomplished actors and so Nolan smartly takes advantage of his triple threats by having his narrators provide the soundtrack. The cast sings, dances and creates a backdrop of songs and sound on the fiddle, cello, banjo, guitar and even a washboard. Encouraging a preshow sing-along, the sights and sounds of the bucolic life fill the Broadway Playhouse. All that’s missing are the smells.
Nolan’s cast is led by some of his best actors from past productions, as well as some excellent newcomers. Little Liam Dahlborn, so memorable as Hermey the Elf in last holiday’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” plays Wilbur with enthusiasm and innocence. Another standout from “Rudoph…” Avery Moss is terrific, terrific, terrific as Wilbur’s first protector and human friend, Fern. Together these two young actors work like a well-oiled tractor, and they hold the stage like the pros they’ve become. Tasha Fowler, the Wicked Queen from Emerald City’s “Snow White,” is a more animated, outgoing Charlotte than usual but it works in this big theatre. Ms. Fowler plays the spider as a kind, thoughtful comrad who would do anything for her friend.
Laura A. Harrison is delightful as the Goose. In her nerdy glasses and crinoline peplumed costume, Ms. Harrison brings to mind Carla Hall from “The Chew” as she bustles around the stage repeating everything three times. Jay Mast plays the Gander with aviary aplomb, but he really excels as Uncle, the larger pig at the fair that’s so full of himself. Mast hilariously struts around flirting with all the women like a porcine Elvis. Erik Strebig, the agile ginger-haired thespian so memorable in several other Chicago productions, has a field day as Templeton, the rat. He almost steals the show running around the stage and audience, suddenly up in the theatre’s tiny balconies with food scraps and words for Charlotte’s web.
Tierra Novy’s colorful and versatile scenic design (the cast is able to nimbly transform the Zuckerman farmyard into the County Fairgrounds in the blink of an eye), enhanced by Michelle Underwood’s beautiful video projections and Jeff Glass‘ atmospheric lighting, makes this show a visual treat. Add to this Alarie Hammock’s imaginative costumes which only suggest the animals the actors are playing without hiding them in fur and feather creations, and you have a full palette of fun.
In this wonderful production about “Some Pig” who becomes famous for the messages woven into a web by his spider friend, audiences will learn a number of life lessons. They’ll experience a taste of farm life, the nostalgia remembered from a bygone era and–most importantly–what it really means to be a true friend. Children will also leave this production with a new appreciation for E. B. White’s novel after seeing their favorite characters brought to life by a talented cast and directed by Chicago’s most loving director of children’s literature. This production is, indeed, “radiant.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 13-August 17 by Emerald City Theatre and Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, at all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.