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CHARLOTTE’S WEB at Theatre of Youth enthralls young and old

THE BASICS:  CHARLOTTE’S WEB, the play based on the classic children’s book by E.B. White, presented by Theatre of Youth, directed by Meg Quinn, stars Kurt Guba as Wilbur, Arin Lee Dandes as Fern (and Goose), Jennel Pruneda as Charlotte, along with other T.O.Y. regulars Jacob Albarella, Jordan Levin, and Dan Torres playing a variety of roles. It runs through Sunday April 9, Saturdays & Sundays at 2:00 p.m., plus April 8 at 10 a.m. A “sensory friendly” presentation is offered this Sunday, March 26th, at 10:00 a.m. All performances are at the historic Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen Street. Act I is an hour long, there is a 10-minute intermission, and Act II is a half hour long. (884-4400). www.theatreofyouth.org

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  On the morning that piglets are born, Farmer Arable takes his axe to slaughter the runt of the litter, but his daughter Fern intervenes, names the piglet “Wilbur,” and cares for him, as do the other barnyard animals, none more than the spider Charlotte, Wilbur’s new friend, who spares the pig’s life for the second time by spinning words in the web over his pig sty at the Zuckerberg farm: “Some pig,” “Terrific,” “Radiant” and, later, at the Fair, in yet the third life-saving action, “Humble.” The animals are large solid puppets on casters, manipulated and voiced by the cast, who also play human roles. The show opens and closes with a high-energy song and dance routine.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The Theatre of Youth isn’t exactly a repertory company (where the same actors appear all season long in a variety of plays) but it’s as close to that as we have in Buffalo and the advantage is a group (and not just actors, but also the director and all the other “behind the scenes” personnel) who know and trust each other enough to really let it all hang out in the service of the audience. There is never a whiff of ironic detachment or “dumbing down” at Theatre of Youth. The actors really “sell it,” and the younger audience believes it. Productions there are some of the best in Buffalo.

These actors have, and will again, play very dramatic roles on other stages in Buffalo, but here they bring all their craft to bear.

These actors have, and will again, play very dramatic roles on other stages in Buffalo, but here they bring all their craft to bear. Everyone is at a high level, but Arin Lee Dandes deserves special applause in that, while everyone else plays an adult (which they are) and/or an animal (the performance standards of which are not, to my knowledge, exactly codified) she has to play not only a young girl, but a person who is exactly the age of the audience. Coming off her recent performance as “May” in JUNIE B. JONES IN JINGLE BELLS, BATMAN SMELLS Dandes hits the ground running.

And, once again, the set design, costumes, and properties are better than you’d expect “for a kiddie show,” with a drop for the Arable farm that is lifted to reveal a complex set representing the Zuckerman farm where Wilbur meets Charlotte, and, just before Act II, it’s changed to show the animal pens at the Fair. To paraphrase the 1968 hit “I Thank You” by Isaac Hayes and David Porter as sung by Sam and Dave.

“You didn’t have to build it like you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you. You didn’t have to change it like you did, but you did, but you did, and I thank you.”

Other fine moments: When Wilbur appears at the Fair, he is now larger (Wilbur is portrayed over time by three different puppets) and the audience loved it.

Also, the fireworks at the Fair, which are simply cutout light projections on the walls, drew a lot of “oohs” and “aaahs” from the audience. And, one fine moment, when Jordan Levin acting as a judge sees Wilbur’s competition, an enormous pig named “Uncle,” he takes his folding ruler and extends it. Twice. Great schtick. Very funny.

Some problems with the performance. Poor Jennel Pruneda as Charlotte has to do a lot of her action precariously perched on a narrow board and she looked a little uncomfortable. Since we in the audience can’t see the width of that platform (only the thickness), perhaps it could be widened, at least on the stage left side, so that she can appear more poised.

Also, about 50 minutes into Act I, the young audience began to grow restless. Perhaps some material could be moved to the shorter Act II?

And it won’t be a problem for the target audience, born in the last decade, but I felt for Jordan Levin as “Templeton” (the rat). After Paul Lynde’s iconic portrayal in the 1973 movie, any performance will be compared. Those are big shoes to fill, and Levin does well.

Also in the “You didn’t have to do it, but you did and I thank you” vein, a big shout out to Chester Popiolkowski (Composer, Sound Design & Vocal Director) and Robert J. Priore (Choreographer) for some very entertaining musical numbers.

TOY offers what they call a “Sensory Friendly Performance” of Charlotte’s Web this Sunday March 26, at 10AM. These performances are designed to offer a safe, respectful, inclusive environment for children who may need any special accommodation or more parental attention during the show.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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