By Wendy Rosenfield

Since its publication in 1952, E.B. White's Charlotte's Web may have been more responsible for furthering the cause of animal rights, or at least vegetarianism, than Animal Liberation Front and Diet for a Small Planet combined. The Arden Children's Theatre understands its audience's deep attachment to humble runt-of-the-litter Wilbur, spider scribe Charlotte, and their barnyard friends' campaign to save Wilbur's bacon, and honors these sensitive, sweet characters with a saccharine-free production.

Many parents will recall the story's 1973 animated version, with Paul Lynde as Templeton the rat, singing about the state fair's veritable smorgasbord-orgasbord-orgasbord. While Joseph Robinette's adaptation leaves room for music, it's of a subtler sort. As designed by Christopher Colucci, the cast members stroll the set under David P. Gordon's wooden barn frame, strumming and humming some bluegrass (Charlie DelMarcelle on guitar and harmonica) or piping a few magical notes on a flute (Sarah Gliko's Charlotte). Drew Billiau's lighting is all bright summer days, and proving this is a show that celebrates all the sensory experiences central to young (and old) life, director Whit MacLaughlin sends his cast out into the house, waving fans doused in lavender oil.

The reverse also occurs, with young audience members taking part in the onstage action. Give a kid an inflatable mallet, tell him he's  at the fair playing Whac-a-Mole with actors' heads, and that bit alone is worth the price of admission. With so much running through the aisles and good humor, there's an informality to this production that helps soften its heavier themes of life and death on the farm. The ensemble juggles multiple roles with cheer and friendly smiles, and if Charlotte carries the greatest burden, Gliko allows her to carry it gracefully, without sentimentality.

Rosemarie McKelvey's costumes don't carry pretensions, either. Aubie Merrylees' gentle Wilbur doesn't wear a pig suit —  he's a wide-eyed boy in a pink and cream flannel shirt, suspenders holding up his baggy pants. Anthony Lawton's surly Templeton swaggers like a New Hope biker, in leather duster, tank top, jeans, wool cap, motorcycle boots, and sunglasses with red lenses. These are people dressed like people, and yet one of my young companions noted, "Wilbur looks just like a piglet!"

Children's theater often relies on an awful lot of bells and whistles. What a treasure then, when a classic story meets wonderful performances and creates that magic all on its own.

Playing at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St., through  Jan. 29. Tickets: $16 to $32. Information: 215-922-1122 or