Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: The Arden's "Charlotte's Web"

Children's theater often relies on an awful lot of bells and whistles. What a treasure then, says critic Wendy Rosenfield, when a classic story meets wonderful performances and creates that magic all on its own.

Review: The Arden's "Charlotte's Web"

By Wendy Rosenfield

Since its publication in 1952, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web may have been more responsible for furthering the cause of animal rights, or at least vegetarianism, than Animal Liberation Front and Diet for a Small Planet combined. The Arden Children’s Theatre understands its audience’s deep attachment to humble runt-of-the-litter Wilbur, spider scribe Charlotte, and their barnyard friends’ campaign to save Wilbur’s bacon, and honors these sensitive, sweet characters with a saccharine-free production.

Many parents will recall the story’s 1973 animated version, with Paul Lynde as Templeton the rat, singing about the state fair’s veritable smorgasbord-orgasbord-orgasbord. While Joseph Robinette’s adaptation leaves room for music, it’s of a subtler sort. As designed by Christopher Colucci, the cast members stroll the set under David P. Gordon’s wooden barn frame, strumming and humming some bluegrass (Charlie DelMarcelle on guitar and harmonica) or piping a few magical notes on a flute (Sarah Gliko’s Charlotte). Drew Billiau’s lighting is all bright summer days, and proving this is a show that celebrates all the sensory experiences central to young (and old) life, director Whit MacLaughlin sends his cast out into the house, waving fans doused in lavender oil.

The reverse also occurs, with young audience members taking part in the onstage action. Give a kid an inflatable mallet, tell him he’s  at the fair playing Whac-a-Mole with actors’ heads, and that bit alone is worth the price of admission. With so much running through the aisles and good humor, there’s an informality to this production that helps soften its heavier themes of life and death on the farm. The ensemble juggles multiple roles with cheer and friendly smiles, and if Charlotte carries the greatest burden, Gliko allows her to carry it gracefully, without sentimentality.

Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes don’t carry pretensions, either. Aubie Merrylees’ gentle Wilbur doesn’t wear a pig suit —  he’s a wide-eyed boy in a pink and cream flannel shirt, suspenders holding up his baggy pants. Anthony Lawton’s surly Templeton swaggers like a New Hope biker, in leather duster, tank top, jeans, wool cap, motorcycle boots, and sunglasses with red lenses. These are people dressed like people, and yet one of my young companions noted, “Wilbur looks just like a piglet!”

Children’s theater often relies on an awful lot of bells and whistles. What a treasure then, when a classic story meets wonderful performances and creates that magic all on its own.

Playing at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through  Jan. 29. Tickets: $16 to $32. Information: 215-922-1122 or


About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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