Roll the clock back to Britain’s glorious Gilded Age of 1908 when Kenneth Grahame dreamed up this rambling adventure for his little son about animals with human traits and the importance of friendship. After seven motorcars wrecks, three hospitalizations and a sentencing to 20-years in prison for speeding and car theft, wacky Mr. Toad, who is mad about motorcars, discovers who his real friends are. Sounds like a Grimm’s Fairy Tale.
Since the last century, Grahame’s novel “The Wind in the Willows”, rich with sensuous description and nature poetry, has become a landmark children’s tale. It doesn’t talk down to children and the characters are really smart, memorable animals who walk and talk like humans and have keen insights on how to live with restraint by the rule of law.
This must-see 75-minute musical adaptation by Richard Hellesen follows the novel as closely as possible, and introduces catchy music and organic-to-the-story lyrics by Michael Silversher, delivered by an over-the-top, exuberant cast. Overall, this children’s production, directed by Janet Stanford and musical director Darius Smith, captures some thrilling and thought-provoking moments from the action-packed children’s book.
The meek Mole, depicted by mellow-voiced Christopher Wilson wearing a mining-cap-light, breaks out of his hole in the ground singing, “There’s more to life than living life as a mole.” Wilson is compelling as the intensely bashful rodent until he comes upon a river for the first time in his life. That’s when he befriends Mr. Rat, a nature poet, enacted by Vaughn Irving as an extroverted, well-groomed charmer, in a white-tailored suit and Straw Boater hat, who lives to scull (an aggressive kind of rowing) on the river. Costumes by Katie Touart really help us identify them and a dizzying array of upcoming characters.
Irving as Rat assures Mole that the good life is on the laid-back river in “Messing Around in Boats.” But when the two friends row downstream to visit Toad Hall, the thrill-packed, fast-paced trouble begins.
Enter wealthy, hot-blooded Mr. Toad (the incomparable Sasha Olinick), who believes life in the fast lane is best. Olinick makes the rafters ring with his trance-inducing song “Poop Poop!” an onomatopoeic imitation of a backfiring motorcar that becomes a pulsating call of the “open road,” his theme song that is reprised throughout. But after shattering tranquility with spins in turn-of-the-century automobiles – he’s cracked up seven of them – Mr. Toad is left holding only a wheel.
To keep us in touch with where we are, scenic designer Ethan Sinnott has concocted a clever amphibious set made up of labyrinthine paths that wander off upstage. Hanging water plants suggest a river. But when daylight dims (well-synchronized lighting is by Andrew F. Griffin), ominous cattails that stand straight up like popsicles become darkened trees that blink with the flashing eyes of nocturnal animals, and we’re in the scary “Wild Wood,” where Mole gets lost.
Ultimately Mole and Rat encounter the reclusive Mr. Badger, robustly portrayed by Doug Wilder, decked out in a Norfolk gentleman’s hunting suit and striped cap. It is here in the darkness of Mr. Badger’s underworld digs that Mole and Mr. Rat talk out their fear of Mr. Toad’s accident record. The reckless driver must be brought to his senses “with Reason,” because he is a threat to the safety and well-being of himself and all the wild forest critters.
From here on, we’re on our own to follow the wonderfully wild escapades of the scrappy, sassy Mr. Toad. Olinick, who is perfectly endearing and a giggle-a-minute in this role, proves his versatility as a character actor. (He was last seen as Mozart in Round House’s Amadeus.) Totally different, dressed in white Duster Coat, long scarf and bug-eyed goggles, Olinick swaggers in his mottled-fabric, toad-skin breeches, clicks his heels like a toad in flight, and struts like a puffed-up penguin with the grandeur of an opera star.
Yet pride goes before the fall. And oh, how hard this jaunty amphibian falls. When he steals a car and is jailed, Mr. Toad collapses into paroxysms of grief for himself. And his pain is compounded when he learns that his enemies, the disloyal weasels (called stauts in England and in the dialogue here), have taken over Toad Hall, his manor house. The evil-eyed weasels, played with quiet menace by Matthew Schleigh and Phillip Reid, eat his food and throw wild parties.
But here’s the kicker. What makes the intractable Mr. Toad sympathetic is that he is his own worst enemy. He is so full of himself he cannot care about anyone else. He causes car smash-ups and hurts a lot of people. Then he foolishly brags about his amazing escapes carried out like Keystone Cop chases to people who will turn him in. And he never gives credit to the resourceful Mr. Badger, the real hero, who ultimately saves Mr. Toad from himself.
So what makes this child-like character likeable? Maybe it’s Mr. Toad’s self-realization and regret when he is forced to face himself. (“Oh, what a heedless fool I am.”) But will Mr. Toad reform? This production delightfully raises this key question.
Yes, there’s a moral. After all, this is a children’s story that wants to teach something. The young lady (age 9) I talked to afterwards said she understood. Avoid extremes. Live with moderation. Slow down and enjoy the small things. Remember “…all the little things that are my own,” sings Mole in the musical to remind us to live happy with whatever you call home.
Take time to read the beautiful prose in the novel, as I did with my own children. (My son still remembers.) It’s worth it. The last chapter entitled “The Return of Ulysses” offers the intriguing possibility that Grahame had Ulysses (or Odysseus), the classic wandering hero, in mind when he wrote “The Wind in the Willows.”
Suggested for ages 4 and up.
The Wind in the Willows
Based on the book by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted by Richard Hellesen
Music and Lyrics by Michael Silversher
Stage directed by Janet Stanford with
Musical director Darius Smith
Choreography by Krissie Marty
Produced by Imagination Stage
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: About 90 minutes including one 15 minute intermission.