There is no improving on E.B. White, or on the pleasure of reading, or having read to you, "Charlotte's Web."
On the other hand, having a chance to enjoy the classic story in another way has its own delights, and that is what young audiences will find in Theatre of Youth's version of White's classic story of a friendship most pure.
This "Charlotte's Web" has more music and less manure, more puppetry and somewhat less poignancy than White's book, but it does stay true to the tale -- no sugarcoating of the threat of slaughter for the pig, or of Charlotte's inescapable fate.
But children are smart, and if TOY had just left Charlotte hanging around the ol' fair barn at the end, they would have smelled a rat.
In a show geared toward elementary school ages -- knowing how to read the words "Some Pig," "Terrific," "Radiant" and "HUMBLE" helps -- TOY's six-person cast energetically populates the rural world of Wilbur, the runt pig (Kurt Guba); his first savior, Fern the farm girl (Arin Lee Dandes); and his second guardian angel, Charlotte (Danica Riddick), the gray barn spider who, as the story goes, also is an excellent writer. (The rest of the cast is Kurt Erb, Adam Rath and Chris LaBanca, all quite fine in multiple roles.)
The human characters in the play telegraph their parts via overalls and straw hats; the barn animals are done as push-puppets voiced by the actors propelling them. There is nothing dazzling about it -- it just works, and kids will likely love that they "get" it. (They also will get a kick out of seeing Wilbur grow over the course of the show -- from cuddly piglet cradled by Fern to the big, pink champion at play's end.)
The trickiest role, of course, is Charlotte, and here TOY struck gold with Riddick. White worked the first magic in making generations of children care so much about a spider, and Riddick doesn't let him down. There's no puppet here. She is Charlotte, elegant in gray, and graceful and kind. Her ballet-like movements somehow turn her four limbs into more as she slips around the barn rafters and plays her gentle trick on the farmer Zuckerman and the rest of the humans. As she says early on, when deciding to save Wilbur from becoming ham and bacon, "If I can fool a bug, I can surely fool a man!"
The story, adapted by Joseph Robinette and pared down to about 100 minutes, with an intermission, remains the same: Wilbur is a pig facing the fate of most farm livestock -- headed to the table once he is grown. Bereft and alone, he finds a surprising friend in the well-spoken spider in the corner of his pen. She devises a plot to save him, by making people believe he is too special to kill. Children understand, because, like Charlotte, they think Wilbur is special, too.
Ideas of friendship and helping others are gently underlined when Wilbur declares toward the end, "I'm going to stop worrying about myself all the time," and Charlotte counters that, "Perhaps by helping you, I was lifting up my life a little."
And that's what being a real friend means. Not a bad take-away from a fun show.
WHEN: Through June 3
WHERE: Theatre of Youth's Allendale Theatre, 203 Allen St.
INFO: 884-4400 or www.theatreofyouth.org