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Children's Theater Reviews : In Charlotte's Words, 'Web' Is Some Writing

August 10, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — If there was one story nearly every kid in my neighborhood seemed to know, it was E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." A little girl down the block named her dog Wilbur, after the farmyard pig saved from the farmer's butcher knife by Charlotte the spider. The story had that kind of pull.

So it wasn't surprising to learn that the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse Children's Theatre put out a general call for all interested local kids when casting for its new production of "Charlotte's Web." Unlike other kids' theater shows at the playhouse, the auditions were open to anyone. The story still has that kind of pull.

With that production background, it's also not surprising that the cast under Ian Downs' direction is not an array of kids obviously auditioning for show-biz careers. Nearly every one of them is having fun, even if a few of them look a bit scared performing in front of strangers.

For those who have forgotten the story, Charlotte (Tammy Donahue) takes pity on Wilbur (Ashley Brown) when the Zuckerman farm clan led by Homer (Stephen Boyer) decides that their pig is due to be turned into pork chops.

Charlotte begins to write words in her web praising Wilbur (i.e. "SOME PIG," "RADIANT"). Charlotte's web not only saves Wilbur; it turns him into the star of the county fair.

White's overt message was that few things in life matter as much as one true friend, but his underlying one is usually lost--that words aren't just words, and that writing is a powerful gift. (White's other perennial classic is every writer's essential guide, "The Elements of Style.")

This is why the continuing popularity of "Charlotte's Web" is a cheering fact amid a welter of news that kids today are in big trouble.

Joseph Robinette's adaptation is appropriately faithful but in no way substitutes for reading the book. Downs, with Lewie Stier (set), Matt Nelson (lights) and Larry Blake and Nelson (sound), fashions some charming stage touches like a glowing moon and exploding fireworks at the fair. It's poetic, on a budget, but not like White's own prose poetry.

*

You have to hope, then, that this show will succeed in its best act, which is to make the kids in the audience search out the book after the show.

Donahue's well-spoken, charming Charlotte would be enough to do that, and though Brown appeared a bit bothered Saturday by her snout makeup, she made you feel for Wilbur. Porcelain-featured Amy Abbascia is quiet-voiced but touching as Fern, the little girl who cheers on both Charlotte and Wilbur.

Among the human and animal supporting characters, Emily Rosen's Templeton the Rat (with terrific help from costumer Pat Tompkins) and Kaitlin Parrovechio's double-turn as a fair announcer and Wilbur's arrogant porcine competition display some real charm and comedy.

* "Charlotte's Web," Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa. Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. (714) 650-5269. $5. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Tammy Donahue: Charlotte

Ashley Brown: Wilbur

Emily Rosen: Templeton

Amy Abbascia: Fern

Kaitlin Parrovechio: Fair Announcer/Uncle

Scott Williams: Avery

Stephen Boyer: Homer

Lauren Ballantyne: Edith

Danielle Gardiner: First Narrator

Tiana Pinheiro: Second Narrator

Kirby Killam: Third Narrator

A Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse Children's Theatre production of the E.B. White story, adapted by Joseph Robinette. Directed by Ian Downs. Set: Lewie Stier. Lights: Matt Nelson. Sound: Larry Blake and Nelson. Costumes: Pat Tompkins.

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