The Wind in the Willows

Children's Theater, Kid-Friendly

Editorial Review

‘The Wind in the Willows’ at Imagination Stage

By Celia Wren
Monday, June 27, 2011

If there were more Mr. Toads around, the nation’s consumer confidence index would be climbing through the roof. As recounted in the musical “The Wind in the Willows” — a colorful if somewhat frustrating nod to Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic, now at Imagination Stage — Toad is an exuberant, whim-driven spender. A houseboat? Why not? A horse-drawn caravan? Could be fun! A fancy motorcar or two? The more, the merrier!

Toad’s self-pampering lifestyle works out well for him, even if one acquisition (a theft, in point of fact) lands him in a dungeon, forcing him to pull off a daring escape. No wonder that the egoistic amphibian (Sasha Olinick) indulges in a celebratory high-stepping vaudeville routine at one point in director Janet Stanford’s staging of Richard Hellesen and Michael Silversher’s musical.

Olinick works some froggy leaps into his characterization, becoming the most animal-like figure in a production that favors the anthropomorphic. “The Wind in the Willows” relates adventures of critters such as Mole (Christopher Wilson) and Badger (Doug Wilder), Toad’s good friends, but you’ll find no furry costumes here: Designer Katie Touart has had a field day devising human-style Edwardian attire, including goggles and a duster for Toad’s motoring escapades. In his straw hat and straw-colored suit with black piping, the dapper Rat (Vaughn Irving) looks as if he has escaped from an Oxford University debate club.

The effect is snazzy, but it does move the theme of nature — which is such an intoxicating presence in Grahame’s book, but which writer Hellesen and composer/lyricist Silversher play down — even further into the background. Ethan Sinnott’s functional set (a large tree stump, dangling blue-green streamers suggesting willow branches) doesn’t do much to convey the charms of the countryside, either.

Perhaps more problematic is the musical’s tendency to breeze past significant plot points (if you blink, you may miss the identity of the woman who arranges Toad’s jailbreak), and its failure to establish the home-sweet-home motif that should give resonance to the ending. In this production, the lyrics to the now-jaunty, now-dreamy songs aren’t always clear. Adults and children who have recently read or re-read Grahame’s book may be best equipped to follow, and appreciate, the storytelling. (Imagination Stage recommends the show for age 4 and up.)

Still, Olinick’s comic turn as Toad is zesty, Irving packs dandified personality into Rat and Matthew Schleigh supplies flavorful Dickensian villainy as the Chief Weasel. A courtroom scene featuring wigged barristers is delightful. And Stanford and her team have done some creative problem solving: Ensemble members wearing long blue gloves snake their arms to evoke a river, and handsome bassinet-size models, carried by actors, stand in for boats, speeding automobiles and other conveyances.

By the end of the show, the miniature vehicles (designed and created by Kristen Menichelli) lie on the stage, emphasizing the fleeting nature of Toad’s enthusiasms. If the web-footed egoist is still going strong, let’s hope he’s shelling out for a couple of Chevrolet Volts.

Based on the book by Kenneth Grahame; adapted by Richard Hellesen; music and lyrics, Michael Silversher. Directed by Janet Stanford; assistant director, Sasha Bratt; music director, Darius Smith; lighting design, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Christopher Baine; choreography, Krissie Marty. With Maya Jackson, Phillip Reid and Tia Shearer. Ninety minutes.

Preview of ‘Wind in the Willows’ at Imagination Stage

By Amy Orndorff
Thursday, June 16, 2011

“Wind in the Willows” is to British children what “Charlotte’s Web” is to young American readers: a beloved book suffused with cultural heritage and passed from generation to generation. It seems only fitting, then, that Janet Stanford, who grew up in England, is taking the reins of Imagination Stage’s musical adaptation of “Willows.”

Having grown up reading “Wind in the Willows,” Stanford is eager to share the story with children here. But will a book written at the turn of the 20th century about proper society in England hold the attention of kids growing up across the pond with video games and cellphones? Stanford is sure of it.

“The book is about more than that . . . [it’s] about supporting your friends and love of nature,” she says.

Kenneth Grahame’s story follows three animal friends — Mole, Ratty and Mr. Badger — who live in the country and accompany their friend Toad (played by Sasha Olinick) on wild adventures.

“I go from being obsessed with boating to owning a caravan to driving an automobile in the first five minutes,” Olinick says with a laugh.

As Toad’s interests change, the discarded items end up cluttering the stage in a reference to excess. Stanford says the desire for the latest and greatest mirrors modern times where “there is always a toy to amuse [children].”

Olinick recently played Mozart in Round House Theatre’s “Amadeus.” The two roles might seem far apart, but Olinick says the amphibian and composer share “irrepressible enthusiasm.” That enthusiasm helps Toad endure a short stint in jail (for reckless driving) and a subsequent breakout.

Real joy, Grahame emphasizes in “Willows,” is found by slowing down and spending time with friends outdoors, whether on a stroll, picnicking or floating down a river. At one point, Grahame even waxes poetic about the dust, describing it as “rich and satisfying.”

“He hated industrialization and the advent of the car,” Stanford says, adding that Grahame felt that becoming an adult was like having “our love of life drummed out of us.”

The stage version (adapted by Richard Hellesen) attempts to stay faithful to the original text, with the aim to “capture some of the poetry,” Stanford says.

“It is an absolutely beautiful piece of writing,” she says. “This was the age before people wrote down to children. . . . I don’t think you cultivate a love of language without giving them lovely language.”