Opening Nights: The Wind in the Willows

Mr. Toad and his loyal pals, in an outdoor production.

With little more than a tricked-out bicycle, Theater Schmeater transports the young and the young at heart to a magical realm of animals in their adaptation of The Wind in the Willows. Here, weasels conspire and carry pop guns, badgers sport Scottish brogues, and best buddies Mole and Water Rat fret over their good friend, Mr. Toad, who's such an erratic driver he could score a local cabbie's license.Kenneth Grahame's children's classic is currently on the open-air stage at Volunteer Park, and in just under 80 minutes, director J.D. Lloyd weaves a tale fanciful enough to ward off any number of intrusions—including crying babies, barking dogs, flying frisbees, and the intermittent airplane.Lloyd is also responsible for this retelling, and he's pared down Grahame's story so that even preschoolers get the gist. Mole (Tadd Alexander) and Water Rat (Josh Hartvigson) do double duty as narrators and participants in the fun, as they explain just how Mr. Toad (Aaron Allshouse) became entranced by that wonderful new contraption, the automobile (cue tricked-out bicycle). Once those wheels are rolling, it's pretty much a whimsical gambol to the finish, as Toad wrecks one car after another, although here they all rather suspiciously resemble the same set of wheels. Soon, Toad's recklessness lands him in jail and his home at Toad Hall falls to a snarky group of squatting weasels—sketched out by a troupe who make the most of their strap-on snouts and trenchcoats.The estimable Mr. Toad may have an auto-addiction disorder, but he's no slouch when it comes to courage or cleverness under duress. He escapes from jail, and with the help of master strategists Mole, Rat, and Badger, drives the weasels out and once again becomes master of Toad Hall. Cleaning out Congress should be so easy.This Wind in the Willows is at least as much arts-and-crafts as art, and that's just as it should be in this kind of setting. The story is the star, and the performers work diligently to make sure that No Child Is Left Behind.Besides, in a production like this, kids provide their own review as the show unfolds. If it holds their attention, it's worthwhile, and if they can't follow the action or it bogs down in minutiae, then it's a dud. The youngsters at Saturday's premiere appeared thoroughly enchanted and clung to every word that wasn't drowned out by an overhead jumbo jet. It did appear momentarily that there was one very loud dissenting opinion. But, as it turned out, he was just wet and needed a quick change of Pull-Ups.

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