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Review: ‘Charlotte’s Web’ at Imagination Stage

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If you’re on the lookout for an engaging, kid-friendly activity this holiday season, look no further than the classic tale of Charlotte’s Web at Imagination Stage. Based on the renowned children’s novel by E.B. White, it has been adapted for the stage by Joseph Robinette and directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer.

Chase Bryer takes all the right risks in this fresh rendition of the play. For starters, she’s assembled a highly versatile ensemble cast that rivals the Justice League in their ability to dazzle viewers. Each actor transforms into multiple characters over the course of the production, seamlessly weaving the story together with charm, thrilling aerial stunts, and playful song-and-dance numbers underscored by live music.

Shanara Gabrielle as Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Deborah Jacobson, Music Director, uses classical and Folk Americana music to punctuate key turning points in the story. Her arrangements briskly move us through all four seasons of the story’s life cycle, beginning with our introduction to the Arable family and their spunky, fun-loving daughter Fern (played by Moira Todd).

This is quickly followed by the birth of Wilbur (played by Timotheus German), a runt pig whom Fern saves from slaughter. Wilbur winds up at Homer Zuckerman’s farm, (played by Matthew Schleigh) where he befriends Charlotte, a clever barn spider (played by Shanara Gabrielle) and a gaggle of other farm animals including a snarky rat named Templeton (Jonathan Feuer), a moody sheep (Javier del Pilar) and a kooky Goose and Gander couple (both performed by Schleigh).

As the story unfolds, Shanara Gabrielle’s athleticism and grace shine through in her portrayal of Charlotte. Her mastery of aerial silks captivated the audience. There was one moment that both parents and kids gasped as she slid down her web and plunged headfirst towards the stage; she quickly caught herself in between the silks and posed upside-down in a split to end the stunt. Her sage and compassionate portrayal of Charlotte is equally breathtaking and reveals nuances in her relationship with Wilbur that I found insightful. She’s not only his friend and protector but also his mentor and the character through whom he learns the most about life, loss, and resilience.

Tim German plays Wilbur with an innocence and comedic physicality that’s thoroughly enjoyable to watch. Moira Todd’s portrayal of Fern is layered with charisma, infectious energy, and a pinch of sass. There’s a knowingness about her that seems to come naturally, and the audience is guided by her moral compass during key moments in the story. Jonathan Feuer delivers a near flawless performance as Templeton and Matthew Schleigh executes his ventriloquist skills to perfection as Goose and Gander. Javier del Pilar plays each of his five characters with a distinct physicality and accent that makes his transition from one to the next fluid and real. His brutish flair as Uncle the Pig is especially memorable.

Shanara Gabrielle, Javier del Pilar, and Timotheus German in Charlotte’s Web. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The set, costumes, lighting, and sound design are expertly curated. Upon entering the theater, the commanding presence of the barn door – crafted by Andrew Cohen (Scenic Designer) and his team from plywood – grabbed my attention. It’s beautifully painted in different hues of brown to match the floor of the thrust stage that displays the barn’s interior. Hidden behind the barn door is the play’s magnum opus, an intricately designed web made from steel and meticulously welded together to serve as Charlotte’s home and the crux of the story’s action.

Costume Designer, Robert Croghan, takes a less-is-more approach to the character’s costumes. A move that pays huge dividends to the story. From the moment the show begins the actors never stop moving and the lights never fade to black to end a scene. The burden of advancing the plot falls heavily on their ability to skillfully transition from singing and dancing to re-arranging set pieces and embodying multiple characters. It’s clear that Croghan accounted for the physical demands of the production when he outfitted each actor in a simple article of clothing that artfully and comedically brings their characters to life while also allowing their full range of motion.

Joseph Payne and Sarah Tundermann deserve kudos for their respective sound and lighting designs. They guide us through the emotional journey of Wilbur and Charlotte’s friendship and layer the world Chase Bryer creates with texture and authenticity.

Overall the show was beautifully executed with only a few minor slip-ups, but the actors adeptly wove those moments into the story. Midway through the play, a flock of recently hatched gooselings wobbled onto the stage. One of them rolled out upside down and Wilber (Tim German) lovingly turned him upright as if that was something he was always meant to do. That spirit of support and collaboration was felt throughout the entire production. From the second the actors took the stage they had us leaning in and we never left the edge of our seats.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Charlotte’s Web is best for children ages 5+ and plays through January 7, 2018, at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Ave, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 301-280-1660 or purchase them online.

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