Tag Archives: Charlotte’s Web

Before there was the Web

The cast of Cookie Company's "Charlotte's Web" preparing to meet and greet young fans after a Sunday afternoon performance in Scottsdale

Before there was the Web, which makes it possible for people to click themselves in and out of friendships, there was a tale of true friendship called “Charlotte’s Web.” No mouse needed for that baby, though a rat named Templeton does fall into the fray. He’s one of many character living on a farm where a pig named Wilbur makes friends with a spider named Charlotte. Theirs is a tale of mutual support and sacrifice, first penned by author E.B. White, and adapted through the years for live theater performance.

Phoenix Theatre’s Cookie Company is presenting “Charlotte’s Web” in Scottsdale through April 29 — so you’ve just one more weekend to enjoy the show. It’s being performed at Greasepaint Youtheatre, where my son used to tag along when his sisters were in shows a decade or so ago. He joined me for the Sunday performance of “Charlotte’s Web,” which made for a lovely bit of remembering. When my children were little, theater outings were a fun way to explore the world, meet other families and start conversations about things that truly matter.

“Charlotte’s Web” a la Cookie Company is bright, bold and cheerful — like the set that features a big red barn and a beautiful backdrop painted with full trees, floating clouds and rolling hillsides. The little girl, Fern, who works so hard to assure that Wilbur won’t wind up on the menu, sports orange tights and tulle under a whimsical dress that matches her spunky personality. Snaps for scenic designer Robert Kovach, and costume designer Gail Wolfenden-Steib.

Also director Pasha Yamotahari, who makes a tale told countless times feel truly fresh. Young theater goers let out gaggles of giggles as farm animals worked together to save Wilbur from a frying pan fate. Every actor gave a skilled, energetic performance that seemed to reach right out into the audience. But I especially loved the goose (Nathalie Cadieux)/gander (Kim Manning) pairing. One rocked a French vibe while the other channeled Spanish-American performer Charro — making the show plenty fun for adults in the crowd.

Come next season, Cookie Company will return to performing on the Phoenix Theatre mainstage campus, where exciting renovations are currently underway. Phoenix Theatre Family is presenting three Cookie Company productions for the 2012-2013 season — including “Peacemaker” (both fall and spring), “Quiltmaker’s Gift” (Nov/Dec) and “Hanky and Girlo” (March/April). Children enjoy milk and cookies, and get to meet costumed cast members, after every show. Naturally, I made sure my son snagged a cookie after Sunday’s  performance. For old time’s sake.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about Cookie Company and Phoenix Theatre offerings, which include school shows, summer camps, new theater works, mainstage shows and more.

Coming up: Hormel is coming (don’t tell Wilbur)

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A “Gypsy” tale

I’ll never forget a pair of shows produced many years ago by Phoenix Theatre. One was “Into the Woods,” with a cast that included D. Scott Withers as the Baker — who’s now performing in the Phoenix Theatre production of “Gypsy.” The other was “Will Rogers Follies” — a show that’s long been my own personal “one to beat” in the world of splashy musical theater fare. Sunday’s matinee of “Gypsy” gave me that “Will Rogers Follies” feeling all over again, and I loved it.

I was hoping that Lizabeth, who’s been fortunate enough to study theater with Withers and perform in a production he directed, would be able to join me for “Gypsy” — but she’s spending spring break in NYC rehearsing for a Pace University production of “Our Lady of 121st Street.” So I invited a friend, whose arts and culture creds far outweigh my own, to come along.

She loved the costumes (Cari Sue Smith). I loved the lighting (Mike Eddy). Also music direction (Alan Ruch) and scenic design (Robert Kovach). We both loved the choreography (Mollie Lajoie), and agreed that the best number in the show is “All I Need Is the Girl,” performed by Peter Marinaro (Tulsa) — whose bio should sport one additional line: The cutie pants who can dance. My line, not hers. She waxes more poetic. I just wanna rhyme.

L to R: Kathy Fitzgerald (Rose) and Jenny Hintze (Louise) in "Gypsy" at Phoenix Theatre

Three other performers delivered especially strong performances, including Withers (Herbie) and Jenny Hintze (Louise). Also Kathy Fitzgerald, who performs the role of stage mother Rose. Lizabeth and I saw her last gig — the Broadway production of “Wicked” (Madame Morrible) — where she was the perfect embodiment of misguided mean. She brings the same beautiful bite to Rose, with singing chops a bit too grand for smaller stages. Her  “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” rival renditions by several Broadway greats.

People read Rose differently depending on their own life experiences. It’s hard to justify her selfish, hard-driving ways. Still I felt the emphathy Fitzgerald hoped to convey. Rose’s own childhood was ugly, and left her wounded in ways most of us can scarcely imagine. She wanted so desperately to be together instead of alone. To scratch out her own shot at fame while helping her daughters escape the life that’d carved “victim” across her heart.

Still, Rose modeled some important coping skills for her daughters — humor, hard work and undying optimism.” I can’t help wondering how much better any of us might have fared under similar circumstances. Michael Barnard’s direction is a kaleidescope of sorts — revealing complicated facets of characters where others might settle for simple stereotypes.

L to R: Kate Shein (June) and Kathy Fitzgerald (Rose) in "Gypsy" at Phoenix Theatre

It helps when you’re working with brilliant material. “Gypsy” features book by Arthur Laurents, music by Julie Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Consider it a “musical fable” suggested by the memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, the oldest of two daughters the real-life Rose did her best to shove into show business as the craft of vaudeville was falling away to the craze of burlesque.

“Gypsy” feels especially relevant in a day and age that elevates stage mothers to reality show stardom. But there’s something more — the undercurrent of change within the theater biz itself, no less profound today than it was in Rose’s day. Consider, my friend suggested, the ways of Lady Gaga. What’s talent without terrific packaging? Once there was burlesque. Now we have branding.

Phoenix Theatre has long been the cornerstone of classic musical theater in the Valley, but it’s seamlessly transitioned in recent years to contemporary fare like last season’s “Avenue Q.” They’re presenting “Spring Awakening” with Nearly Naked Theatre in June, and opening the 2012/13 season with “Spamalot.”

This and other 2012/13 offerings were revealed in a short black and white film shown on a small screen in the theater before an orchestral medley of “Gypsy” tunes opened the show. They include “Defending the Caveman,” “S’Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical” and “a reimagining” of “Our Town.” Also a new musical revue called “Love Makes the World Go Round” (“Gleeks” will dig it) — and a little something they can’t yet name but describe as “a menagerie of  crazies.” Don’t expect Tennessee Williams.

— Lynn

Note: The cast of “Gypsy” includes several talented young actors — another great reason to see the show. Phoenix Theatre performs “Gypsy” through April 1, and their “Cookie Theatre” production of “Charlotte’s Web” opens at Greasepaint Theatre in Scottsdale on April 14.

Coming up: Got scripts?

Once upon a theater camp

Aaron Zweiback performs in Green Eggs & Ham with The Phoenix Symphony on St. Patrick's Day

I was reminded while reading Mala Blomquist’s post this morning that spring break camps will soon be upon us, and was busy trolling for camps with an arts and culture twist when interrupted by a call from 12-year-old actor and ASA student Aaron Zweiback, whose theater teachers include Xanthia Walker.

I first met Zweiback last summer when my daughter Lizabeth, who now studies acting in NYC, was a teacher assistant with Childsplay Academy in Tempe. She’d invited me to see the final performance of a summer workshop with a “Hairspray” theme. Zweiback was one of several campers performing snippets of the musical for family and friends — and his Edna a la bathrobe was a hoot. He’s also done theater camps with Phoenix Theatre.

I ran into Zweiback after a recent Valley Youth Theatre performance of “Charlotte’s Web” — during which he rocked the rat role — and put fist to ear with the typical “call me” sign after chatting with his dad. In a rather spooky coincidence, I’d been wondering earlier this morning whether he’d ever have time to actually pick up a phone.

Today was the day, and the call couldn’t have been better timed. Turns out Zweiback is performing in several shows I’ll be seeing in coming days and weeks. I learned yesterday that I’ll need a little snip to a torn part of my left knee, but decided to postpone all things arthroscopy for another two weeks in order to keep my review calendar mostly intact.

Aaron Zweiback recently performed in Charlotte's Web at Valley Youth Theatre

So life looks like this for me and my knee: See Zweiback and others perform in “Gypsy” at Phoenix Theatre this weekend, limp my way through a trip to visit Lizabeth over spring break, then catch a returning flight in the wee hours that gets me home just in time to hit another Zweiback gig — The Phoenix Symphony performing “Green Eggs and Ham.” Then squeeze in the surgery thing (with a doc who took his kids to see a friend from the Valley perform in “Grease” on Broadway a few years ago). I’m told the wait won’t worsen what ails me.

Turns out “Green Eggs and Ham” includes all sorts of amazing folks from Valley stages. ASA teacher and renowned Valley actor Toby Yatso, with whom both Lizabeth and Zweiback have studied voice, is narrating the story. Zweiback does his “boy soprano” thing as “Sam I Am” and shared that the theatrical piece of the concert is being blocked, choreographed and directed by Bobb Cooper, VYT’s producing artistic director.

There’s another Sam in Zweiback’s life as well — an actor named Sam Primack whose little mittens I once guarded with care as backstage mom for a Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “Oliver.” He and Zweiback were in “A Christmas Story” at Phoenix Theatre earlier this season, and both are cast in Childsplay’s world premiere production of Dwayne Hartford’s “The Color of Stars.”

Sam Primack poses with a VYT fan after performing in Charlotte's Web

After Zweiback shared a bit about auditioning for all these shows, I invited him to write a guest blog with audition tips for young actors — and he graciously agreed. It takes a generous spirit to share one’s own “secrets to success” and Zweiback certainly has one. I fully expect to see him performing on Broadway stages one day, and hope he’ll also keep an eye out for opportunities to audition for roles in works by William Shakespeare where his intellect and gift for comedy would shine.

If the ticket fairies are working in my favor, I’ll be able to enjoy the work of another Valley-trained actor while in NYC next week. Nick Cartell, who has performed with VYT, Phoenix Theatre and other Arizona companies makes his Broadway debut this month in a revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Katie Czajkowksi and Aaron Zweiback after a Childsplay summer camp performance based on the musical Hairspray

I’m also looking forward to the Homestead Playhouse production of “Holes,” being performed at Copper Ridge School in Scottsdale March 28-30, because another young performer I met after the Childsplay “Hairspray” camp performance landed the warden role. Katie’s mom, Deb Czajkowski, recently got in touch to share the happy news — and her thoughts on the many benefits of theater for youth.

I hope those of you still wondering what your children or teens might enjoy doing over spring break will do a little theater camp legwork. One day, perhaps, you’ll get to turn to your child and share the old theater adage for good luck — “Break a leg!” Just try to keep your own body parts intact in the meantime…

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read Mala Blomquist’s post on spring break camps and here to learn about all sorts of summer camps. Find additional spring break camps at Voices Studio, Creative Stages Youth Theatre and Mesa Arts Center (if you’ve got one, send me the scoop at rakstagemom@gmail.com).

Coming up: Spring break NYC-style, Hometown boy makes Broadway debut

Reds versus blues

Rebecca Duckworth, Drew Ignatowksi, Cody Dull and Laurie Trygg in Peacemaker with Phoenix Theatre's Cookie Company

For grown-ups the “red vs. blue” thing conjures images of partisan politics. Or assumptions about huge swaths of Americans living in various states. California is blue. Texas is red. Purple is becoming harder and harder to come by.

But not so for the colorful clown-like folk who populate the land of Reds and Blues in a play called “Peacemaker” that’s being performed through Feb. 26 by Phoenix Theatre’s Cookie Company. It’s directed by Robert Kolby Harper, who knows a thing or two about juggling.

Seems there’s a land where reds and blues once lived peacefully together — albeit one to the north and another to the south. The bridge connecting them held room for just a single person to cross at one time, which wasn’t a problem until a pair who met in the middle each refused to yield.

This portion of “Peacemaker” is told by a lone character who’s lamenting her lack of juggling skills, and acted out by puppets — helping to make this work, best for preschool-K audiences, a perfect transition from puppet theater to works featuring on-stage actors.

After a battle of relatively tame proportions, the two sides decide the only way to stop the fighting is to assure the Reds and Blues never see each other. They build a wall, hire guards and hope for the best.

Until red juggling balls get thrown over the wall to the blue side, and children from warring factions begin a playful exchange that leads them to tear down a portion of the wall.

Cookie Company presents Peacemaker, a tale of children tearing down walls, through Feb. 26

A little Red girl wants to improve her juggling, while a little Blue boy wants to learn how to dance. Turns out each needs the other to get what they want. No cooperation and they all leave empty handed.

I’d have been tempted to write a bit more political parody into this piece, but it’s best I think that it’s a straight telling of a children’s story — meant to promote acceptance, empathy and friendship rather than satisfy the sarcastic tendencies of parents turned pundits.

“Peacemaker” is a very simple, straight-forward bit of storytelling that leaves the ending open so children can imagine how the world might be different once the Reds and Blues learn that neither has plans to actually eat the other.

Costumes for the Peacemaker are wonderfully whimsical, as are various sound elements that range from beatbox-style music to shoes that squish loudly as the Red guard storms across the stage befuddled that folks aren’t following the rules.

“Peacemaker” comes in under 45 minutes, so folks who go have plenty of time for exploring nearby attractions. Cookie Company performs at Greasepaint Theatre in Scottsdale, which is near the Scottsdale Waterfront, Old Town Scottsdale, the Civic Center Public Library and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Children who attend get a free cookie with milk. Your kids might leave the show feeling inspired to bake cookies with red and blue candies, create their own puppets with fabric and craft sticks, or give juggling a try. The best theater lives on long after the show comes to a close.

— Lynn

Note: Mark your calendars for the final production of Cookie Company’s 2011-2012 season — they’ll perform “Charlotte’s Web” April 14-29 at Greasepaint Theatre in Scottsdale. “Gypsy”opens at Phoenix Theatre, near downtown Phoenix, on March 7.

Coming up: A betrayal tale

Charlotte’s Web

Young Arts Arizona worked with children and teens from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Scottsdale to create custom artwork you can enjoy when you see the show

Valley Youth Theatre opened its production of the play “Charlotte’s Web,” directed by Lauren Antioco, this weekend. It’s a Joseph Robinette adaptation of E.B. White’s classic book about friendship, loyalty and self-sacrifice. And it’s beautifully done.

Charlotte's Web cast members get ready to meet and greet fans

The set design by Dori Brown in striking, as is lighting design by D.J. Selmeyer. Costume design by Karol Cooper perfectly captures the small farmtown setting from head to toe. Sound design by Clearwing Production is also exceptional. Taken together, they make “Charlotte’s Web” one of the best designed pieces of youth theater I’ve seen to date.

Sam Primack (Wilbur) poses with two young fans after the show

The production was also exceptionally well cast. Lead roles went to Hannah Blaile of Arcadia High School (Charlotte), Sophia Drapeau of Veritas Preparatory Academy (Fern) and Sam Primack of Cherokee Elementary (Wilbur). Primack has plenty of acting experience, and it shows. Together, the show’s 29 cast members create a cohesive, capable ensemble.

Charlotte's Web cast members pose for photos after the show

I especially enjoyed performances by the actors noted above — plus Jamie Grossman of Ironwood High School (Edith Zuckerman), Audrey Nelson of Archway Classical Academy (Little Lamb) and Aaron Zweiback (Templeton) of Arizona School for the Arts. Also Erik Wilson (Avery), a medieval history buff who didn’t note a school in his program bio.

These young ladies came out to see Sophia perform the role of Fern

A mother I talked to during intermission shared that the production had just the right balance for her two young daughters — holding their interest without being too loud or busy. To producing artistic director Bobb Cooper’s credit, “Charlotte’s Web” is just simple, elegant storytelling that shows real respect for young viewers.

Future teacher Audrey Nelson (Little Lamb) signs autographs after the show

“Charlotte’s Web” is being performed at Valley Youth Theatre through Feb. 19. Next up is Julianne Moore’s “Freckleface Strawberry” and “The Wiz” (which’ll be performed at the Herberger Theater Center). When you go, stay after the show to enjoy meeting cast members, who love signing autographs and talking with young fans.

You'll enjoy both visual and performing arts at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix

Also take time to enjoy “Charlotte’s Web” inspired artwork created by children and teens from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Scottsdale through Young Arts Arizona. Valley Youth Theatre is one of several venues that displays Young Arts Arizona works — and pictures currently exhibited at VYT feature pigs, geese, spiders and webs sporting words ala Charlotte herself.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about VYT shows, spring break camps, performing arts classes and more.

Coming up: Don’t mock the presidents!

Here piggy, piggy…

This little piggy is one of many animal sculptures along Main Street in Mesa

Pig power returns to the world of youth theater this weekend as Valley Youth Theatre opens its production of “Charlotte’s Web.” Seems at least one of my favorite pigs, from Carters Farm Mobile Petting Zoo and Ponies, is joining VYT between this Saturday’s shows.

Folks who attend the VYT production of “Charlotte’s Web” on Sat., Feb. 4 at noon or 3pm can enjoy a lovely bit of piggy time. The show actually opens at 7:30pm the night before but apparently that’s past the piggy’s bedtime. Not so f0r Sam Primack, who performs the role of Wilbur on the VYT stage.

“Charlotte’s Web” is the work of E.B. White, described by publisher HarperCollins Children’s Books as “a legendary writer for decades at The New Yorker and the author of many books of essays” who lived in both New York City and Brooklin, Maine.  He also authored “Stewart Little” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.”

There’s a nifty E.B. White bio on the HarperCollins website, which reveals a bit about how animals like Wilbur made their way into White’s stories — “In 1938, White moved to the country. On his farm in Maine he kept animals, and some of these creatures got into his stories and books.”

Seems White was less fond of writing than we might imagine: “Mr. White found writing difficult and bad for one’s disposition, but he kept at it. He began Stuart Little in the hope of amusing a six-year-old niece of his, but before he finished it, she had grown up.” Encouraging words for those of us banging away on book projects.

I’m tempted to plan a weekend slumber party complete with “Charlotte’s Web” outing, piggy pajamas and pin-the-tail on the piggy-type games. But that would be tacky, I suppose, since my children are all in college. I’ll have to settle for pulling out the “Charlotte’s Web” poster that once hung in our home, and maybe sending a couple of care packages with a piggy theme.

Our own little piggies grow so fast. One minute you’re playing with tiny toes reciting “This little piggy went to market.” The next you’re paying for college textbooks and donating titles like “Charlotte’s Web” to your favorite children’s charity. So Carpe diem — and Carpe piggy too!

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read an E.B. White letter to readers recounting his inspiration for writing “Charlotte’s Web.”

Coming up: More from Mesa’s Main Street

The fine art of bugs?

While traveling through Canada many years ago, I explored the Montreal Insectarium — where I learned that bugs can be beautiful. Big, but beautiful. Plus useful to people and the planet in all sorts of ways.

If bugs have a bad rap in your house, it might be time to get to know them better — starting with events, lectures and classes being offered by the Desert Botanical Garden as part of the “David Rogers’ Big Bugs” exhibit.

The exhibit features eleven giant bugs Rogers created from fallen or found wood, cut saplings, twigs, raw branches, twine, bark and other naturla materials. The sculptures weigh from 300-1,20o pounds and range from seven to 25 feet long.

Recently I toured the garden with my son Christopher, a college student who never lost his little boy fascination with bugs. You can enjoy the exhibit with your family through Jan 1, 2012.

Several garden features seem to mirror the materials used for Big Bugs…

This praying mantis greets visitors right after they enter the garden…

This laby beetle in one of several Big Bugs along the garden’s main trail…

Every piece of sculpture is accompanied by a sign with details about the work…

The daddy-longlegs looks like a friendy storybook character…

Compare the grasshopper’s legs to cactus and you’ll see something in common…

We were both most impressed by the spider and web hanging below…

The “Spider-Man” musical on Broadway has nothing on this giant arachnid…

Catch a glimpse of this damselfly both from the path and from the bridge…

Challenge your kids to find differences with the dragonfly below..

The giant assassin bug is hidden away along the wildflower trail…

Thanks to the fine folks at Chase and PetSmart for sponsoring Big Bugs…

We hit the gift shop to look at bug books, calendars, puppets and more…

If you’re both bug and film buff, check out the garden’s “Big Bug Movie Nights” — which start Sat, Oct 1 with “Antz.” Other featured films include “Charlotte’s Web,” “A Bug’s Life,” “The Fly” (1958 version), “Beetlejuice,” and “Arachnophobia.”

The garden clearly has bugs on the brain. Their “Music in the Garden Fall Concert Series” includes a Nov 4 “Get Back: A Tribute to the Beatles!” concert. They’re presenting a “Bug Brunch” Nov 5 & 6. Also classes and lectures to up your B.Q.

Those of you wishing to “be the bug” can don your bug mask or butterfly wings for the garden’s Sept 30 gala fundraiser titled “Moonlight Masquerade.” It’s an adults only evening, so leave the kiddos at home with a sitter who’s not afraid to crack open a bevy of bug books.

Think Eric Carle’s “The Grouchy Ladybug,” “The Very Busy Spider” or “The Very Quiet Cricket.” Throw in some colorful tissue paper, pom poms and pipe cleaners and they can get crafty while you’re tripping the light fanstastic.

“The Big Bug Circus” is also coming to town. The marionette show from the Great Arizona Puppet Theater in Phoenix heads to Gilbert for two performances on Sat, Oct 8 at the Higley Center for the Performing Arts.

Clearly bugs have gone big time.

— Lynn

Note: Visit the Desert Botanical Garden online at www.dbg.org and David Rogers at www.big-bugs.com. Find Eric Carle at www.eric-carle.com, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater at www.azpuppets.org and Higley Center for the Performing Arts at www.higleycenter.com.

Coming up: For the love of Lilly!, Festivals with multicultural flair, VYT debuts “Dora the Explorer”