Childsplay Weaves a Wondrous Tale in “Charlotte’s Web”

Last Saturday, my family and I had the pleasure of attending Childsplay’s production of “Charlotte’s Web,” adapted from the E.B. White classic by Joseph Robinette, and directed by Anthony Runfola. The familiar tale of the unlikely friendship between a young pig and an old spider has long been one of my favorites, so my expectations going in to this performance were high. The cast and crew of Childsplay did not disappoint. The acting was superb and the set design, costumes, and effects were nothing short of perfection as they transported the audience back to a simpler time in 1950’s rural America.IMG_5795

The play begins with Fern, played by the delightful Kate Haas, singing to herself, “The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout….” Immediately my three-year-old yelled, “Hey, Mom! I have that book!” So much for theater etiquette. But at the same time, I was pleased to see my younger daughter so quickly drawn in to the performance. Nicely done, Childsplay!

Although I had set out to read this beloved classic to my two daughters, Lucy (age 3) and Jula (age 6), over the summer, as you all know, life happens, and we didn’t get very far in our efforts. They knew the gist of the beginning of the story…girl meets pig, girl saves pig, pig meets spider…but that’s about as far as we got. They knew nothing of Charlotte’s attempts to save Wilbur and, of course, had no idea that Charlotte herself would one day perish. So pretty much, they knew nothing.

As a result, I wasn’t sure how my girls would react to the play. I knew they would adore Wilbur (which they did), and I felt sure they would revere Charlotte (which they did), but I couldn’t be certain that my frequently loud and energetic three-year-old would be able to follow the story enough to sit still during the production or that my overly sensitive and empathetic six-year-old would be able to keep it together when Charlotte died. I’m proud to report, they both surprised me.

To be sure, Lucy did yell out during the performance (as mentioned), and she did have a fantastic time playing the new game she invented called “Bounce in My Seat,” but she also watched the show with wide eyes and was able to tell me everything that she loved about the play later that evening: the lights for the baby spiders, the music, Wilbur and Homer playing chase, and “Charlotte the spider because she’s BEAUTIFUL!”

If you’re feeling a little unsure about whether to take your own preschooler to this performance, my advice is to know your child. Lucy is an active little girl, but she can also sit through a 90 minute movie without blinking an eye. I think live productions naturally encourage more movement and activity because the actors are right there running around on stage and our little ones are so tempted to join them, but Runfola wisely includes a fifteen minute intermission during which you can take your wiggle worms out to the lobby to burn off some energy if need be. The entire production, including intermission and the Q&A portion at the end of the show, is nearly two hours long, but not once did I see a child being removed from the theater, nor did I notice any child who likely should have been.

Childsplay recommends “Charlotte’s Web” for children ages 5 and older, undoubtedly because of the mature themes of death and mortality woven throughout the play. Runfola doesn’t sugarcoat this. Wilbur indeed faces the threat of slaughter, ax and all, and Charlotte does, in fact, die in the end. However, I think that for most of the toddler and preschool set, both of these particulars will go right over their heads. That seems to have been the case with Lucy. Aside from the ax, nothing about Wilbur’s impending doom is extremely overt, and Charlotte’s death is quiet and simple rather than gratuitous.

Older children, however, will likely pick up on these darker themes if they listen more carefully to the dialogue and narration. My six-year-old, Jula, was noticeably upset by Charlotte’s passing, and while she did not cry, she did ask A LOT of questions. After the performance, she said, “I can’t believe Charlotte died! But she didn’t die for real, right? I mean she’s still a real person, right?” This even after chatting with Debra K. Stevens, who plays Charlotte, at the end of the show! Obviously, we had much to talk about on the ride home. Depending on your older children’s prior experiences with death, I suggest you be prepared for similar conversations.

While she was deeply saddened by Charlotte’s death, Jula was mostly heartbroken at the thought of Charlotte dying alone. She wasn’t the only one. When narrator Katie McFadzen delivered the line, “No one was with her when she died,” I sniffled. A man seated three rows ahead of us surreptitiously wiped his eyes. I’m fairly certain I even heard McFadzen’s voice quiver. Such a fiercely loyal and altruistic friend did not deserve this fate.

Of course, “Charlotte’s Web” isn’t all about death and dying. The themes of friendship and kindness prevail throughout the story with even Templeton the rat learning to help others, so long as there’s something in it for him! The play may make you cry, but it will also make you laugh with comic relief provided by Jon Gentry as Templeton and a lot of good-natured chuckles at the expense of the endearingly sweet Wilbur, played by Kyle Sorrell. Gentry, my personal favorite and long-time Childsplay crush, plays the unconscionable, inconsiderate, selfish rat Templeton with such charisma and panache that I actually found myself rooting for him by the end of the play. But, of course, the real star of the show is Sorrell. He skillfully captures the childlike exuberance of the young pig Wilbur while also showing him to be earnest, innocent, and unassuming. The story is as much a coming-of-age tale for Wilbur as it is for Fern, and, by the end, Sorrell’s Wilbur has matured into an astute, resourceful, and brave leader among the barnyard animals.

Children (and adults) will also be impressed by the set design, the costumes, and the lighting and sound effects. Set Designer William H. Symington has created a simple yet imposing set consisting mainly of a single movable structure that converts from the Arables’ house to the Zuckermans’ farm to the County Fair. With every turn and transformation, I could hear Jula whisper “Whoa!” The simplicity of the barn contrasts nicely with Charlotte’s large and wondrous web, fashioned out of painted metal rods that shimmer and sparkle under the stage lights. Stevens’ Charlotte crawls gracefully across her jungle gym web, but it’s the manner in which she “weaves” her messages about Wilbur that most amazed my family. So much so, I insisted we ask her about it at the end of the show. I won’t spoil anything for you here, but know that Stevens practiced for more than eight hours over several weeks to master her “web-spinning” technique.

Adriana Diaz’s costume designs are whimsical and fun. Rather than dress the actors in typical animal fashion (i.e. realistic-looking animal costumes), Diaz instead chose to outfit them in clothing that captures the essence of their animal characters. Playful and innocent Wilbur is dressed in pink patchwork overalls with green rubber boots and a straw hat adorned with pink, pointy ears. Winsome and beautiful Charlotte wears a marbled gray and brown ball gown with layers of tulle for the skirt and four furry legs attached at her waist. Jula explained that Templeton wears a “dirty old coat” because “rats like things that are very yucky.” Diaz’s concept was not lost on her.

Tim Monson’s lighting design and Christopher Neumeyer’s sound effects bring the farm to life with roosters crowing at sunrise, dark and gloomy rainy days, and fireworks at the County Fair. Three of Charlotte’s children are represented by small individual flashes of light, marking their presence as magical and significant. Although this is a rather simple effect, it’s one that has stayed with Lucy even now, days after the show.

Runfola’s production is well thought out and staged with obvious consideration given to Childsplay’s intended audience. For example, he uses the actors to narrate the transitions between scenes. This is a clever way to move the story along when playing to an audience of children. Jula and Lucy were delighted by the manner in which he illustrates Wilbur’s maturation from piglet to pig; “The pig puppet grew and grew, and then he was a human!” Runfola’s portrayal of the Goose’s newborn goslings was an audience favorite, eliciting smiles and laughter from children and adults alike, but, once again, I won’t spoil the surprise for you here.

Childsplay’s production of “Charlotte’s Web” is lively, humorous, and heartfelt and will appeal to audiences of all ages. Children who are new to the story will fall in love with Charlotte and Wilbur, and adults who enjoyed the classic novel as children will delight in seeing these beloved characters come to life on stage. I loved it, my husband loved it, and our girls “thought it was great!”

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After the show, be sure to spend some time in the lobby where theater-goers are invited to learn all about arachnids through a display board of spider trivia, read a letter from E.B. White sharing his thoughts on writing and his inspiration for the story of “Charlotte’s Web,” and test their knowledge of new vocabulary words from the play through an interactive exhibit (Did you know “arable” means suitable for farming?). A separate table offers directions for weaving a web made from pipe cleaners and yarn and encourages children to answer the question, “If Charlotte wrote a word about you in her web, what would it be?” Their answers are displayed on a giant web of yarn dubbed the “Childsplay Worldwide Web of Words.” Also check out the educational resources available on Childsplay’s web site. Although I think these are mostly intended for teachers and students on field trips, they include a lot of great activities that my girls have enjoyed.

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“Charlotte’s Web” runs through Oct. 12 at the Tempe Center for the Arts with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and on Sundays at 1 p.m. Backstage tours are available on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4 with an ASL performance on Sept. 28.

Cathy
Mom Blogger

“Schoolhouse Rock Live!” review by Jessica

Another toe tapping, bouncing in your seat performance from the folks at Childsplay.  Schoolhouse Rock Live! was a performance that took me right back to the good old days of watching these musical cartoons when I was a kid. My boys ages 8 and 6 really didn’t know what to expect when heading to the show and the car was flooded with questions about what they were going to see. My daughter was more than willing to give them her version of I’m just a Bill at the top of her lungs from the front seat of the car; silly teenager enter stage right. With this show being right at an hour of stage time it was perfect for introducing my younger children to musical performances. It was a nice blend of story line and music and education that had them all (me included) shuffling our feet to the upbeat tunes.

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The set was layered with functionality: stacked boxes became shelves or television sets, or even hiding spots for hide and seek. My favorite by far was the inventive use of white boards and lighting to give versatility to changing words and reinforcing key points of the song. I was very impressed with the precision this took for the performers knowing exactly where their boards and bodies needed to be to execute this element of the show. One step to the side or a shift in position would robbed the audience of an important adjective or conjunction.

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Schoolhouse Rock was jammed full of songs, old favorites like, Just a Bill, Five, and The Preamble, as well as our new favorites like Interplanet Janet and Unpack Your Adjectives.  All the actors and actresses did a great job of belting it out, the songs transitioned well and added some really funny moments that had us giggling long after the show was over. One of our favorites was when Molly Robinson who plays Shulie, held her hands up sporting three fingers on each side and making an “o” with her mouth transforming herself into a walking “WOW.” Since the show my daughter has tried it out on many occasions.  School House Rock Live is a MUST see, toe tapping, rockin‘, fun family experience.

Jessica
Mom Blogger

Marissa Reviews “Schoolhouse Rock Live!”

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My family had the opportunity to attend the Childsplay performance of Schoolhouse Rock Live! this past weekend. I must say I think I was looking forward to this more than the kids were!  I remember as a child watching Saturday morning cartoons and singing along with Schoolhouse Rock. When my oldest daughter was little we purchased the DVD and spent hours listening and singing. They have also used the songs at her school to learn about three, the preamble and various other things.

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I was curious how they could have made a play out of short song/skits, and I was pleasantly surprised that they found a way to make it a story that incorporated the songs; in a dreamy sort of way.

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What most impressed me about this production was the sheer physicality and talent required to pull this off. The four actors were moving throughout and singing the whole time. It was brilliant and made me wish I had the stamina to sing and dance for such a long time. They also involved the audience which was great and held the kids attention well.

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Of the two plays we have taken my three-year-old to, this one held her captive more than the other. She and my oldest daughter would sing along with the songs they knew, and the time flew by. My favorite part was three is a magic number, which my oldest daughter told my youngest daughter was her song, because she is three you know.

I am still singing the songs in my head a week later. If you don’t leave singing and with a spring in your step, you may want to try another way to relive your child, it is very worthwhile. This was a wonderful musical that the whole family can enjoy, I can’t recommend it enough!

Marissa
Mom Blogger

An Unconventional Family Bonded by a Dog: Childsplay’s “Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle”

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I figured that the littles and I would enjoy any play where one of the main characters is a dog (played by a human), but I didn’t realize how touching and thought-provoking a seemingly simple tale could be. We knew going in that Childsplay’s Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle would likely be fantastic. When we saw The Velveteen Rabbit a few months ago, we were blown away. What surprised me about this production was how playwright José Cruz González took serious current social issues and made them approachable for young audiences and how Childsplay’s actors communicated the story in such a way that these beginning theater-goers could “feel.”

Childsplay summarized the play:

When a stray dog appears on the doorstep, it’s love at first sight for six-year-old Cory, and the last straw for Grandma Autumn. Life hasn’t been easy lately for either of these two, facing absent parents and lost homes. But in a delightfully surprising story filled with humor and heart, Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle reminds us love makes almost anything possible, even in hard times.

The subject matter couldn’t be more timely.

We had the honor of listening to González speak about the play before it began. He explained how he wanted to tackle current issues that are facing so many in our country. He wanted to illustrate an unconventional family both in terms of multiple generations and in terms of race and culture.

My children (ages five and seven) were quite entertained throughout the performance. There were no untimely bathroom requests or declarations of starvation. They were riveted. They laughed a lot, and felt the tension that some parts of the story required. I enjoyed watching their faces as much as I enjoyed watching the performance. With such complex, sensitive issues being raised I wondered how much my children absorbed. I asked them what the play was about (possible spoilers):

Quotes from my seven-year-old:

• “The girl had to live with her grandma because her mom was dead and her papa had to go to another country to work. They didn’t have a lot of money, so that must have been hard.”

• “I thought it was cool how they went to all the different places and just switched a couple of things on the stage so you could tell where they were.”

• “The girl helped the dog, and the dog helped the girl and her grandma, too, so they became a real family. They all loved each other.”

Quotes from my five-year-old:

• “Love…and family.”

• “The play was about the dog saving the girl’s life just like she saved his life.”

• “The girl and the grandma didn’t get along so well at the beginning, but then they loved each other.”

• “My favorite part was when the grandma stepped in the dog poop!”

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I must say, the poop part was pretty funny. There were several points during the show that had the whole audience roaring. Despite–and perhaps partly because of–the hilarious antics, the kids were able to understand that the story was about love and family.

Aside from the fabulous performance that Childsplay put on, I love the fact that they make theater approachable for kids. After the performance, the actors took their traditional bows, but then remained on the stage. They first asked the children in the audience specific questions about the play that made them think how they, as individuals, could relate to the story. Some of the questions required detailed comprehension of the story, and some didn’t, so there were questions for all ages. Everyone had the opportunity to participate. The children then had the chance to ask questions of the actors. The actors were approachable and said “ask us anything!”

My favorite question came from a young man: “How old are you?”

It was clear that Osiris Cuen, who played “Cory,” a six-year-old girl, was nowhere near that age. Yet during the performance, she made us believe she was. “I’m twenty-two,” Cuen told the young man. Carlos A. Lara, who played the dog, reported his age as “twenty-four.” Perhaps we can figure that out in dog years. And Chanel Bragg, who played “Grandma Autumn” was a mere thirty-one! Now I really feel old. It was wonderful to see the children in the audience asking questions that adults would typically take for granted. Not only are the children learning at an early age how to think thoroughly about a production, but adults get to view a live production through the eyes of inquisitive children. How rewarding for all!

Related:  adopt a friend and get a free ticket: childsplay teams up with the arizona animal welfare league

 

Kristen
Mom Blogger

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