Review: Forget Spiderman. The Hilberry presents ‘Charlotte’s Web’!

By Patty Nolan

Detroit Theatre Examiner

Read the original article here.

Everyone has their own idea about what’s wrong with education today. Most of these discussions focus on money and where we should be spending it.

What’s a parent to do?  Seize every opportunity you can to expose your children to new learning experiences. For example …

This writer believes that if more children were exposed to more live theatre they would be better off.  And if more people were exposed to the works of E.B. White– young and old – the world itself would be better. White’s carefully crafted American prose builds on a rock-solid foundation of essential values – honesty, decency, loyalty and compassion. Lessons we can all use.

Although we cannot make Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style compulsory reading for all school children, we can encourage everyone to go see the Hilberry Theatre’s production of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, dramatized by Joseph Robinette.

Every summer, the Hilberry produces a family play that is as theatrically robust as their adult-focused offerings. This year’s production of Charlotte’s Web, directed by Jesse Merz specifically with young audiences in mind, opened this morning and runs through July 9th.  Some performance dates are already sold out, and we can see why. The story is a favorite of adults and children alike, and the tickets are only $5 for children, $8 for adults and $5 per ticket for groups of 10 or more. This is live theatre at its best – for the price of a Spiderman retread.

There were many tiny children at this morning’s opening, and they were fascinated – some of them eschewing their seats in favor of standing up for the show.  Of course, this production makes a point of involving children – with cast members explaining the theatre ‘rules’ before the play gets started, and then inviting kids to help at different points in the play.  After the show, costumed actors appeared in the lobby to chat with the children, answer questions, and sign their programs.

Charlotte’s Web is performed by six actors who play 15 characters (people and farm animals) and rely on quick costume changes (and fun costumes) to keep the action moving. The scenery, designed by Curtis Green, is both realistic and enchanting.

It’s all a perfect setting for telling the story of eight-year-old Fern Arable, who pleads with her father to spare the life of a runt piglet. Fern is given responsibility for the care of the pig, whom she affectionately names Wilbur. Eventually, Wilbur is sold to Fern’s Uncle Homer and becomes a resident of the animal community on the Zuckerman farm. Although Wilbur feels lonely in his new home, he soon meets Charlotte, the barn spider who befriends him. When Wilbur discovers that he’s slated to become the Zuckerman’s Christmas dinner, Charlotte weaves words into her web that are designed to help save Wilbur’s life.

Parents familiar with the story may wonder if its sadder parts might upset their children.  Based on the Tuesday audience, we can report that although they were quiet, none of the children seemed especially upset, and they quickly recovered by the next scene.  Indeed, the only open weeping seemed to come from this writer; the story hits us the same way every time.

The cast includes many veteran Hilberry favorites, including Vanessa Sawson (Royal Oak, MI) as Wilbur; Carollette Phillips (Detroit, MI) as Charlotte; Laura Heikkinen (Livonia, MI) as Fern, Goose and Spectator; Alexander Schott (White Lake, MI) as Templeton, Arable and Lurby; Dave Toomey (Lansing, MI) as Homer, Sheep, Spectator and Avery;and Samantha Rosentrater (Geneva, AL) as Narrator, Gander, Reporter, Uncle and President of the Fair.  (Note: Ms. Rosentrater, a gifted Hilberry actress and one of our personal favorites, was forced to perform with her leg in a black cast.  We wish her speedy healing.)

The creative team includes Jesse Merz (Director), Michael Waldrup (Production Stage Manager), Curtis Green (Scenic Designer), Fred Florkowski (Technical Director), Mary Leyendecker (Costume Designer), Gabriel Rice (Lighting Designer), Tyler Ezell (Sound Designer), Lisa Berg (Properties Designer) and Jillian Zylinski (Production Publicity Manager).

For more information or to purchase tickets: call (313-577-2972) or visit the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at 4743 Cass Ave. at the corner of Cass and Hancock; tickets are also available through the theatre online, or by visiting the theatre’s WSU website.

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