at the Theatre Building

“This is the place of my song-dream . . .” –from The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Kenneth Grahame’s 1910 children’s book, The Wind in the Willows, has been the subject of several theatrical and film adaptations. There is a famous Walt Disney cartoon, and an elegant animated-puppet film from England. And Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, wrote a stage version called Toad of Toad Hall.

All of these adaptations have contained their own sometimes quite substantial variations on the original. But most have shared a nearly singleminded emphasis on only one aspect of Grahame’s story: the saga of Mr. Toad, the reckless rascal whose misadventures land him in jail and test his friends’ loyalty. The tale of Toad is indeed the core of the book, but there is much more to The Wind in the Willows than an anthropomorphic amphibian careening about the English countryside in an automobile. Grahame’s fable probed the pleasant woodland environment to reveal a hidden world of magic and mystery. There’s adventure and comedy in The Wind in the Willows, but there’s awe, too.

For instance, in one of the books most captivating sequences, the close friends Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole take a moonlight boat trip down the river to find a runaway baby otter; the trip brings the two into the presence of God–their god, the god of the riverbank, a timeless, pre-Christian god. Other adaptations of Wind have dispensed with this sequence as a cumbersome, unnecessary intrusion on the better-known, more broadly humorous portions of the story.

In his 1985 stage musical of the story now being revived at the Theatre Building, playwright-composer-lyricist-director Douglas Post retains this section; his choice to do so not only produces the most exquisite moments in his lovely production, it also exemplifies what makes his adaptation stand out from others. Like Grahame, Post is not afraid to blend overt, raffish comedy with quiet reflection, even a sense of spirituality.

The Wind in the Willows is, after all, a fable. Its animal characters–Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger, as well as various otters, weasels, horses, hedgehogs, and field mice–are stand-ins for human beings, specifically the gentlefolk of rural England. Lesser fabulists use animals to poke fun at human mannerisms; Grahame sought rather to explore the human condition.

The story should be well known: how Mole, Rat, and Badger join forces to save their foolish, vain, but good-hearted friend Toad from the dangerous consequences of motormania. Always a fool for fads, Toad is hooked on that newfangled novelty, the motorcar; his automotive addiction leads him to steal a vehicle, a crime that earns him a 20-year jail sentence (1 year for the theft, 3 years for “furious driving,” 15 years for being cheeky to a policeman, and 1 year to round it off). By the time Toad has escaped from jail, his beloved family estate, Toad Hall, has been taken over by a gang of weasels and must be reclaimed in battle.

Through this story, Grahame teaches a lesson on the nature of true friendship–demonstrated by Mole, Rat, and Badger in their willingness to chastise Toad for his misbehavior and then fight at his side. Beyond that moral, The Wind in the Willows explores numerous themes–love of home, the lure of travel, the value of courage, the danger inherent in “progress”–with a bemused, compassionate gentleness that an adapter must be tempted to jettison in this age of high-speed kids’ entertainment.

But Post stays true to his source (though he’s not afraid to alter the story when it suits his needs). His Wind in the Willows–trimmed since its opening, in response to complaints of occasional dullness–is delicate and tender, and seemed entrancing to youngsters and intriguing to adults at a recent matinee I attended.

There are several keys to the show’s charm. A fundamental decision has been made to play the animals as humanoid. The talented young cast–ably led by David Rice as Toad, Tom Kelly as Rat, Karen Sheridan as Mole, Donald D. Renaud as Badger, and Mark Edward Heap as Otter, along with amusing support from Geoffrey Baer as a skeptical horse and Michael Irpino as a wide-eyed hedgehog child–eschew costumes depicting realistic or caricatured toads, moles, etc. Instead, they suggest animal characteristics through vocal and physical inflections, while retaining an essential humanness.

Post’s music, too, is a major factor in the production’s eloquence; there are several memorable melodies (including the beautiful title tune and a surprisingly appropriate punk anthem for the weasels, portrayed here as a band of class-conscious anarchists), and a musical eclecticism that makes most of the songs sound fresh despite their occasional derivativeness (though one song, a mock-scary fugue about the dangers of the “Wildwood,” comes a little too close to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” for comfort).

An especially important factor in the production’s success is the lighting and scenic design by James Radloff. The show’s single set is a sort of three-dimensional patchwork quilt, with swatches of fabric in various colors representing leaves and grass, and huge poles representing wild grass and cattails. Transforming this into different locales–including a jail cell and the interiors of the animals’ homes–is a superb lighting scheme, sensitively shaded and surprisingly varied.

It all adds up to a graceful entertainment, light and literate without being lightweight or literary–a story and a song-dream for audiences of any age.