Regional Reviews: New Jersey
A Wind in the Willows Christmas
Also see Bob's review of Trelawny of the Wells
Displaying more than a bit of daring and flair, and in keeping with its commitment to developing new American musicals, Two River commissioned Mike Reid (music) and Sarah Schlesinger (lyrics) (whose adult and sophisticated, albeit wholesome, musical In This House premiered to plaudits here last season) to write the score, teaming them on the project with book writer Mindi Dickstein (lyricist for Broadway's Little Women).
The result is a sunny, funny and unusually sophisticated family entertainment. Combining Grahame's anthropomorphic animal characters and a number of his basic themes and story elements with a dollop of prominently positioned Christmas cheer, Willows Christmas held in thrall even the youngest of the many children in attendance at its opening throughout its 105 minute running time (including one intermission).
The musical retains the rickety structure and major characters of Grahame's novel. The Mole is unhappy in the dark confines of the tunnels in which he makes his home and, instead of doing his onerous spring cleaning, decides to leave it in order to enjoy the air and sunshine with the other animals. He wants to find a place that is home, that is, one where he will be happy. Seeing a bucolic billboard for Harmony Creek, Moley decides that he wants to find it, and to do so in time to celebrate Christmas there.
At the start, Moley meets the Water Rat, an officious but goodhearted town clerk. Ratty takes Moley in hand, introducing him to the above ground critters, teaching him to navigate a rowboat, and offering to lead him to Harmony Creek as soon as he is able. They include Mrs. Otter and her son Little Portly. Little Portly does not want to learn how to catch fish. He wants to be a cook, and wanders away, causing his worried mother and her friends to desperately search for him.
The rich and spoiled Mr. Toad has a large cache of sports cars which he repeatedly crashes as he drives wildly about the countryside. After the distinguished and responsible, but solitary, Dr. Badger informs Ratty and Moley that Mr. Toad's repeated offenses have landed him in jail, they stay in his mansion, Toad Hall, in order to protect it from being wrecked by Weasels. All ends well come Christmas, with important life lessons learned by Grahame's musicalized denizens and our delighted young 'uns.
The sweet, often tinkly and jaunty upbeat music by Mike Reid supports Sarah Schlesinger's cleverly rhymed lyrics. The superb scenic design by Philip Witcomb is centered around a giant rotating circular ramp festooned with greenery. There are platforms at several levels and stairways linking them with the ramp, largely within the latter's circle. His colorful costumes are fun, but, more often than not, they fail to convey the identity of the critters being portrayed, or even that they are critters. Moley wears a white shirt, blue jeans and a headband with a "headlight" on the front, Ratty wears a white suit and fedora hat, Dr. Badger wears a three-piece grey suit and, most felicitously of all, Mr. Toad wears bright green pants, a yellowish green jacket, dress shirt and embellished necktie. Director Amanda Dehnert keeps things moving at a lively pace, and elicits solid, enthusiastic performances from her cast.
Tituss Burgess is particularly delightful as the self-satisfied, perpetually upbeat Mr. Toad. Burgess is a total delight prancing and dancing his way through "Things," the score's happiest and most felicitous song. Tom Deckman (Mole) and Nick Choksi (Water Rat) make for rambunctious and amusing travel companions. The comic energy of John Jellison (Dr. Badger), Farah Alvin (Mrs. Otter), Dana Steingold (Little Portly), Kathy Connolly (Rabbit/Weasel) and John Garry (Rabbit/Weasel) adds to the evening's entertainment.
Two River Theatre is where theatre appreciating families can have a merry A Wind in the Willows Christmas.
A Wind in the Willows Christmas continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 7 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday - Saturday 12 Noon; Sunday 12 Noon & 4 pm at through December 30, 2012, at the Two River Theatre Company, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
A Wind in the Willows Christmas Music by Mike Reid, Lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger, Book by Mindi Dickstein based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame