E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" could be the world's most perfect children's story. It has everything: life and death struggles, talking animals, a feisty little girl, gullible adults, and a terrific, radiant and humble pig named Wilbur.
It also has literature's most unlikely heroine, the eloquent gray barn spider named Charlotte, who dedicates her short life to saving that of her best friend.
Charlotte is the key to bringing this beloved story successfully to the stage. There are many ways to represent farm animals, with masks, or furry feathery costumes, or, as they do in this splendid production at Theatre of Youth, with rolling puppetry.
But how do you get a spider onstage without totally freaking out a young audience? Fortunately, Jennel Pruneda makes it look easy. With a sparkling crocheted shawl over her flowing gray costume, Pruneda plays Charlotte with a graceful limberness that somehow makes her four limbs appear to be more. And, as a small creature would, she speaks to the childlike Wilbur with an affection so pure it creates unquestioning trust in the little pig.
There actually are two Wilburs: the pink puppet on wheels, and the actor who animates it. That would be Kurt Guba, steers and echoes his character's actions with a shadow's skill.
Arin Lee Dandes plays Fern, who first rescues the runt Wilbur from her father's ax, but then shares her stage time by playing the Goose. Jordan Levin takes on two pragmatic characters, the farmer Zuckerman and Templeton, the cynical rat. The rest of the hats land on Dan Torres, playing a farm hand, Fern's brother, the Gander and the fair's president.
Even with so many roles, the play can't begin to present all the drama and humor contained in White's novel, and children who know it by heart may notice the gaps. Don't expect Wilbur to try to spin a web with a string tied to his tail, and Fern fades well into the background until we get to Act II. White's leisurely barnyard summer zips along pretty darn fast, leaving narrator Jacob Albarella to keep us filled in on the key points.
One thing that is not trimmed is Charlotte's magic. The play centers on Charlotte's plan to save Wilbur from the smokehouse, and what an excellent web she weaves when she comes up with a receipt to deceive.
Her web was far from worldwide, but nevertheless, word spread quickly when the words "SOME PIG" are spelled out in the fragile filaments. The entire community turns out to see the miracle, although as is often the case with unsigned work, they misattribute the source.
Once Charlotte has everyone's attention turned toward Wilbur, "TERRIFIC" and "RADIANT" follow, and then it's off to the fair.
Children who may have been fidgety during some of the expository scenes of Act I get their reward in the second part of the show. In Act II the show picks up on more of White's humor, and the TOY crew pulls out even more stage magic with tricks of lighting and props.
Which we need, because "Charlotte's Web" contains one of the saddest scenes in any children's story. Not to worry, though. It is handled here with a gentle practicality, with Wilbur standing in for everyone watching as he learns he must accept this unhappy fact of life. He lets her know that, while he is pained by his loss, he also realizes what he has gained from their friendship.
"Bravery is just one of the many things I've learned from you, Charlotte," Wilbur tells her, before the fireworks and the fair and the life on one exceptional gray spider all come to an end.
The show may be a little long for young children who are aren't tuned into the story, but for creative kids and those who already have heard about the clever spider who saved the happy pig, the show brings to life a world they only imagined.
3 stars (out of 4)
When: 2 p.m. March 25, 26, April 1, 2, 8, 9; 10 a.m. April 8.
Where: Theatre of Youth at the Allendale Theater, 203 Allen St.
Recommended ages: 6 and older
Tickets: $26 and $28