By John Baggett
Friday, March 4th-Sunday, March 6th and Thursday, March 10th-Sunday, March 13th (Evenings 7:30pm – Sundays 2:30pm) – “Charlotte’s Web” will be on stage at Tyler Civic Theatre. The costumes and unit set may be quite simple—it’s the story and relationships that make the show—or they may be as colorful and elaborate as you wish. All the enchanting characters are here: Wilbur, the irresistible young pig who desperately wants to avoid the butcher, Fern, a girl who understands what animals say to each other, Templeton, the gluttonous rat who can occasionally be talked into a good deed, the Zuckerman family, the Arables, and, most of all, the extraordinary spider, Charlotte, who proves to be “a true friend and a good writer.” Tyler Civic Theatre is located at 400 Rose Park Drive in Tyler, next to the Tyler Rose Garden Center. For more info call (903)592-0561 or log on to www.tylercivictheatre.com. The box office is open Monday-Friday, 10am-1pm and 2-5pm. Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students.
For many people, the story, “Charlotte’s Web,” is as much a staple of our childhoods as was “The Wizard of Oz.” Whether it’s the classic book by author E.B. White, the 1973 animated film, or the 2006 live action version, many a child and adult have been affected by this story in one way or another. Now, Tyler Civic Theatre is giving East Texans the opportunity to experience this classic as they tackle Joseph Robinette’s play about “some pig” named Wilbur and his stage adaptation of this iconic tale.
“Charlotte’s Web” is the story of Wilbur, played as a youngling by Zachary Combs and as fully grown pig by Trace Brimer. Wilbur was born the runt of the litter and targeted for slaughter by his owner, John Arable (Dave Disckson), but is saved by his young daughter, Fern (Lydia Kaiser). Fern promises to take care of him and the two become fast friends. But as Wilbur starts getting bigger, the Arables can’t afford to keep him. Fearing for Wilbur’s life, Fern tries to spare her friend again, leading John and his wife Martha (Maureen Kaiser) to send him off to the farm run by Homer (Nick Bunton) and Edith Zuckermen (Sandy Junek).
At the Zuckerman farm, Fern is able to visit after school and all day every day during the summer. There Wilbur is well fed and taken care of, but since Fern isn’t always able to come by, he is lonely. Even though he lives next to a Goose (Tana Switsky) and Gander (Heath Huffstetter), a Sheep (Rebecca Smith) and her Lamb (Delaney Mullee), and a very hungry rat named Templeton (Doug Ames), he longs for someone he can call a friend.
Hearing his cries of loneliness, a friend does appear. An eight legged friend, to be exact, and her name is Charlotte (Jenea Travler), a spider that lives in a huge web at the top of the barn. The other animals try to prepare Wilbur for the fact that once he is big enough, Homer and his goofy hired hand, Lurvy (Joshua Alexander) will slaughter him, turning him into bacon and ham. With Wilbur scared for his life, Charlotte becomes desperate to find a way to save her friend. One night, she decides to use her web to write a message for all to see, starting with the phrase “Some Pig.” When Lurvy and the Zuckermans see this message, they realize there is something going on with Wilbur. As the messages continue, the Zuckermans and the Arables decide to enter Wilbur in the county fair, with the promise that if he wins the blue ribbon, they will let Wilbur live. But, as the fair approaches, Charlotte is getting tired and ready to create her egg sack, yet with time running out, she will do everything she can to help her friend.
“Charlotte’s Web” is directed by Justin Purser. Purser found a cast of talented children and adults to bring this story to life. This choice of having adults and children play animals, instead of just children, allows for some great moments of humor, though under his direction I imagine if it was all kids it would have worked just as well.
With such a large cast, it is sometimes easy to forget that this is the tale of a pig and a spider and everyone else are just supporting players. As Charlotte, Travier is wonderful. She really sells herself as the heroin of this story and provides the emotional core of the play. I mean, getting human beings to feel sympathy for a spider is an impossible task, and she pulls it off beautifully. Combs is absolutely adorable a young Wilbur, and part of me wishes he had been our pig friend through the entire show, but Brimer gives it his all as “adult” Wilbur and he is fantastic.
The show has a lot of debuts, including Travier, and Brimer. Newcomer Ames gets many a laugh as Templeton, though it feels at times that he is playing Paul Lynde playing Templeton instead of making the character his own. Smith is great as the Sheep and as the Lamb, Delaney Mullee is absolutely adorable. She has serious comedic chops for someone of such a young age. Huffstetter gets some of the biggest laughs as the Gander and Switsky holds her own as the Goose.
As our humans, Lydia Kaiser is wonderful as Fern and with her real life mother, Maureen, playing her stage mom, it really feels like we are watching families on stage and not just actors. Especially Bunton, who isn’t new to the stage, but I had only seen in the Liberty Hall floor show for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Junek, also making her debut. They really feel like a married couple running a farm got on stage. The six members of the show’s chorus, many taking on dual roles, are wonderful, and there are a handful of young actors playing “baby animals” that are really cute in their roles. Dickson is great as the Arable patriarch, which is a hard task I’m sure as there was tragedy that struck this show.
By now, most of us know that cast member Ryan Mullee, father of actress Delaney, tragically lost his life, and Purser and company have dedicated the entire run to him. I won’t lie and say that this didn’t add an extra degree of sadness to this production, but they handled it beautifully. In fact, the tribute they pay to him is absolutely perfect and if the story doesn’t make you cry, this will. I admire everyone for keeping this production going and I have no doubts that Ryan would have been proud.
“Charlotte’s Web” is a sad, but funny tale about life, friendship, and loss. Whether you’ve read the book or seen this story in one form or another a thousand times or not, you owe it to yourself to see this show. It’s the kind of heartwarming family outing, or outing by yourself, that just about everyone will enjoy. The show opens today and runs through March 13, so don’t miss the opportunity to see a truly special show that will make you laugh, cry, and remember how you felt the first time you experienced the tale of “some pig” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
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