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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Children's Theater of Madison's Charlotte's Web teems with stellar performances by local kids
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Karen Moeller as Charlotte in Children Theatre of Madison's Charlotte's Web
Credit:Children's Theatre of Madison

Perhaps one of the most beloved children's stories of all time, Charlotte's Web makes an excellent opener for the 2012-13 season at Children's Theater of Madison. E.B. White's tale about the friendship between a pig and a spider has charmed readers for more than half a century, and Joseph Robinette's adaptation brings its magic to the stage. Rich in lessons about friendship, love and the circle of life, this play is complex enough for audience members of all ages. CTM's production runs through Nov. 4.

On Saturday night, the house was full. A dream-like scene filled the stage at Overture Center's Playhouse. The set was just right for the show, with an artfully-crafted barn scene and a giant geometric spider web as the centerpiece. The web, lit in purple, looked like a pretty cool jungle gym. I was as impressed and intrigued as my 7-year-old theater companion.

The show unfolds with immense energy and a lot of silliness, thanks to a great cast. As it is so often with CTM's performances, the very youngest actors really get to shine. Two-thirds of the large cast is local kids, and these young thespians offer remarkable performances.

As the lamb, Sylvia Barbush was exceptionally cute and snooty at the same time. She delighted Saturday night's audience as she hopped and bleated. Jack Thompson plays Wilbur the pig. His expressive face and wily antics garnered plenty of chuckles and smiles. As the young farm girl Fern, Margaret Brackey captures the complexities of being on the cusp of adolescence. Over the course of the play, Fern changes significantly. At the beginning, she's a tomboy who spends her time in the barn with Wilbur, but by the end, she's more interested in boys.

The adults in the cast are just as strong. Alex Brick is phenomenal as the twitchy, self-centered rat Templeton. He hunches his lanky frame and channels an incredible amount of energy as he dashes about stage. On Saturday, he earned some of the biggest laughs in the show and a swell of applause at curtain call. Also remarkable is Christine Grimm as the goose. She finds the perfect balance between being motherly and silly, all while maintaining a goose-like waddle and a convincing honk.

As devoted and wise spider Charlotte, Karen Moeller is superb. She delivers her lines deliberately and precisely, and she sounds just how I've always imagined Charlotte to sound. There's a slight spookiness to her (she is, after all, a spider), but her love for Wilbur is clear. Her role is also physically challenging since she spends the entire play in a vertical web. She climbs and spins and, even when she's resting, must hold herself in place.

Director Xan Johnson adds a couple of twists to the well-known story. A few references to Reedsburg and Sauk County suggest that the action unfolds right here in Wisconsin, though younger audiences may not catch on. This production also incorporates elements of Native American culture, through spirit-like storytellers dressed in traditional costume. While I appreciate this gesture, it felt incomplete and muddled the play a bit.

Still, Charlotte's Web succeeds in many ways. Polished performances by a fine cast illuminate E.B. White's touching story, making for a show that will delight many.

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