Charlotte’s Web at Zach Theatre

In this stage adaptation of E.B. White's classic, music and a sense of family connect to each of us and connect us all to each other

The Zuckerman Family Band in Zach Theatre's Charlotte’s Web (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

It starts with a band.

Before we ever meet Fern Arable, the farmgirl with a soft spot in her heart for the runt of a pig litter; before we ever see that runt, Wilbur, and he has a chance to win over our hearts, too; before we watch the wise arachnid Charlotte spin the web that saves Wilbur from a grim fate as a side dish to eggs on a breakfast plate, this Zach Theatre staging of E.B. White's enduring story about friendship and sacrifice on a family farm welcomes us with a rousing set of bluegrass-tinged Gospel from the "Zuckerman Family Band." That's Zuckerman as in Zuckerman Farm, the place run by Fern's uncle, Homer, where Wilbur is allowed to live during his temporary reprieve from the dinner table and where he encounters Charlotte, Templeton the rat, a goose and gander, and an old sheep who also become his barnyard compatriots. In time, all of these animals save Charlotte will be portrayed by the members of this "family band," and they'll play all of the assorted humans that figure into Wilbur's tale as well, but before that, while the audience is being seated, they make music together. And while they may not be really related by blood, you wouldn't know it from the lovely, lively way they combine their voices and the sounds they make with their instruments. Led by the ever-engaging Allen Robertson on banjo – who also serves as the show's music director and cuts loose with one hysterical honk as the gander – the seven people in this ensemble bring such a uniform, uplifting joy to "I'll Fly Away" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" that you can imagine them having sung these hymns on the front porch together every Sunday for years. It's a down-home feeling that seems genuine and is extended to all present – Clap along! Sing along! – so that we'll feel part of the family, too.

It's a simple attitude, a simple gesture, but it makes such a difference once the story does begin. Because of it, we feel at home in this rural world, in the charmingly weathered wooden barn designed by Michael Krauss, and among these creatures and their keepers embodied by the performers who befriended us through their music making. Feeling this is our home, too, helps us when we have to grasp death's place in this world, which is so important to this story, not as something just to be avoided, as in Wilbur's case, but as something that occurs naturally in the cycle of life. It helps to have a family guide us through such a complex and emotionally challenging idea, and the stage family that welcomed us to this world provides that for us in the audience, just as Fern and Charlotte and the geese and the sheep and, yes, finally, greedy, snarky old Templeton become a family for Wilbur. They teach him, they look out for him, they make sacrifices for him, and they do it together. The cast conveys the familial ties among these characters – the shared compassion of daughter and father, as expressed by Mercy Bovik's Fern and Robertson's John Arable; the happy affection that Bovik's Fern shares with Riley McCue's boisterous Wilbur; the settled rapport of Winnie Hsia's serene Charlotte, Joseph Quintana's self-serving Templeton, Amber Quick's jaundiced sheep, and the excitable geese of Amanda Clifton and Robertson – through dialogue in much the way they do through their work as a band. (Credit to director Nat Miller for assembling a company of such congenial players and pulling them together so well.)

Though Charlotte the spider is definitely a part of this world, she exists apart from it to an extent in this production. Hsia does not perform with the Zuckerman Family Band, and most of her scenes occur above the stage, as this accomplished aerialist uses silks to ascend to the giant web in a corner of the stage. But despite this separation and the tranquil grace with which Hsia embodies Charlotte, we feel fully for her as she takes her leave of Wilbur and the farm. You see, she's spun a web that, though it can't be seen, connects to each and every one of us. And that's the way this entire production works: It takes the small, beautiful web that makes a family and keeps spinning and spinning, extending it to you and to me and to everybody, until we're all a part of it.

Charlotte’s Web

Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541
Through Jan. 15
Running time: 1 hr.

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Zach Theatre, Allen Robertson, Nat Miller, Amber Quick, Winnie Hsia, Amanda Clifton, Mercy Bovik, Riley McCue, Joseph Quintana, Michael Krauss

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