PROVO — Growing up I must have watched the cartoon version of Charlotte’s Web hundreds of times, but until recently I didn’t know there was a stage adaptation of E. B. White‘s beloved children’s book. I was able to attend BYU’s production of Charlotte’s Web adapted by Joseph Robinette and directed by Shawnda and Bradley Moss.
I was also unaware of how much I would love this production. There were many things that impressed me: the use of aerial silks, the performance by Meg Flinders as Charlotte and Garret Rushforth as Wilbur, and the costume designs of Kirsten Watkins. Overall, this production was very successful and engaging.
I love theatrical designs that are simple, functional, and striking. The set, designed by Rory Scanlon, was all of those things. Scanlon created a simple barn front that consisted of wooden slats with gaps between each slat. This made for a contrasted silhouette again the beautiful skies created by the lighting design of Marianne Ohran. I appreciated how the lighting design and the set design complimented each other.
Another memorable design was Watkins’s costumes. Designing costumes for a show where the main characters are animals requires balance, especially when there are also human characters. I loved that the costumes alluded to what animal the characters were without being overly obvious. This allowed for the actors to develop their characters without relying on the costumes to do the work of telling who they were. For example, Wilbur was dressed in khakis, a pink and blue plaid shirt, a pink cardigan, and a pink bow tie. I overheard a little girl next to me ask her mom why he was dressed like a person and not a pig, and I loved her mom’s response saying, “So we can use our imaginations.” This design allowed the audience’s imaginations to flourish and showed that the animal characters as more than just animals. I also appreciated the choice to dress Charlotte in not just black and maybe some red, as spider characters usually are, but in black, white, and yellow.
Charlotte, as played by Meg Flinders, was easily my favorite character. Her physical movements on stage were indeed that of a spider while maintaining the grace of a dancer. I loved the use of aerial silks as Charlotte spun her webs. It was an unexpected touch that allowed there to be greater focus on Charlotte and the webs she spun. I also saw a depth and internal struggle in Flinders’s interpretation that I have never before saw in Charlotte. She was happy to befriend and save Wilbur (played by Garret Rushforth), but the personal sacrifice and cost she paid to do so were very real. When it came time to decide for Charlotte to decide to go to the fair, Flinders showed that Charlotte was indeed putting her own needs and wants to the side. Her death was more heart wrenching to me in this production because I had come to love this character more than ever. Charlotte was truly the connector between the rest of the animals on the farm.
I loved the chemistry between all of the farm animals as they worked to come up with more words and prevent Wilbur from running away after he learns the fate of the pigs on a farm. Rushforth gave Wilbur a charming innocence about him. Wilbur was naive to the ways of the world in the early parts of the story, but eventually that was replaced with a strength and courage to face whatever came his way. It was joyful to watch as Wilbur grew and matured under the love and care of Charlotte and the others. Radiant, terrific, and humble were truly words that described Wilbur. Although Wilbur didn’t understand or recognize all that Charlotte was doing to save him most of the time, the moment he does is provided a growth and depth to the character that I was longing to see.
I also loved the performance of Chelsea Mortensen as the sheep, the voice of fact in the farm. Plus, her sheeplike laugh killed me every time. Mortensen also showed some enjoyable dark humor with her lamb, played by Michaella Scholz. The sheep contrasted nicely with the Goose (played by Christine Detweiler) and the Gander (Devin Jarvis), who were silly and fun. The sheep also helped keep Templeton the rat (Teagan Clark) in line. I found the choice of having a female play Templeton to be interesting and felt that Clark did a wonderful job of it.
On the other hand, the choice to have a female play Uncle, the competing pig at the fair, was not as successful. Sophie Determan, who played Uncle, did a great job at creating the right attitude for Uncle, but I was distracted by a obviously feminine performer for a role that is masculine in nature. The feminine persona was emphasized by the pink dress and heels of Uncle’s costume, which was distracting when so many other choices for this production were spot on.
This production teaches what it means to be a true friend and how friends help shape and influence an individual and a group. It also teaches about loss and death. This production provides opportunities not just to entertain children, but to have conversations with them about life, growing up, friendship, and death. There are moments for laughter and moments for tears. This production and the Mosses’ directing showcases the beauty of the story, the acting, and the technical aspects of this production.
As a reviewer for UTBA, I have seen quite a few productions for young audiences, but BYU’s production of Charlotte’s Web has touched my heart more deeply than any other. Don’t miss this opportunity to see this “radiant” production of Charlotte’s Web. At 90 minutes long with no intermission, it is an appropriate choice for all audiences.