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TALKING TOADS AND KID LIT, AT TWO RIVER

 Tituss Burgess as Mr. Toad (center) with Tom Deckman as Mole (left) and Nick Choksi as Water Rat (right, in car) in A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS at Two River Theater. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

He’s the impulsive, fad-conscious, spendthrift, anthropomorphized amphibian at the heart of the classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows — and even for those who’ve never gotten round to reading Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 volume of stories, the image of a gleeful Mr. Toad racing through the countryside in his open roadster is one of the most iconic in all of Kid Lit.

The timeless tales of Toad and his animal friends have been variously Disneyfied, Pythonized, and even showtuned in a Broadway bomb with Nathan Lane. Here in Red Bank — where many old-timers still recall the 1970’s watering hole Toad Hall — audiences are now being treated to the world premiere of an all new musical spinoff (commissioned and developed by Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias), entitled A Wind in the Willows Christmas.

The annual holiday-season family show reunites the TRTC team with the partnership of Grammy winning singer-songwriter (plus 1970’s-era All-Pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals) Mike Reid and lyricist Sarah Schlesinger — the composers of the “chamber musical” In This House that premiered at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue artspace last season.

Working with book writer Mindi Dickstein (Broadway’s Little Women and Toy Story: The Musical) and director Amanda Dehnert, the songsmiths have shaped the character of Mr. Toad to the talents of Tituss Burgess, an acclaimed creature of Broadway (he originated the show-stealing part of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid) and network TV (a recurring role on 30 Rock) whose trademark high tenor marks a departure from traditionally froggy-voiced conceptions of Toad. He’ll be starring alongside fellow woodland pals Nick Choksi as Water Rat, Tom Deckman (Spamalot) as Mole, John Jellison (Memphis) as Badger, and Farah Alvin (Nine) as a distaff Mrs. Otter.

In separate interviews, the Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Burgess and Reid during rehearsals at Two River — and Q&As follow forthwith, with a flip of the pixelated page.

Tituss Burgess as Mr. Toad (in green jacket) and the company of A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS at Two River Theater.

redbankgreen: Just to address the elephant, or in this case crab, in the living room — you seem to be the man who’s called upon to lend dynamic voice and personality whenever there’s an animal-kingdom character to put across. What are your thoughts on making your first big splash as Sebastian in LITTLE MERMAID

TITUSS BURGESS: The best theatrical experience I’ve had was watching the kids’ expressions when I made my entrance. I made certain to maintain a certain quality that carried over from the film, but they were expecting something a bit different when they cast me. My Sebastian was a little more active. Plus Samuel Wright, who did the cartoon voice, was a bass baritone, and I’m pretty much an alto!

Well, with this show you’re back playing to a younger audience, and it happens to be a show adapted from a book that runs deeper than most of what we call children’s literature. Given what the animal characters in Grahame’s stories have to say about human nature, do you approach this project as one that trusts its audience’s intelligence, that doesn’t talk down to them?

At first it hit me that, my God, I’m going to be doing a children’ show — and then I realized that there were parts of the script that I had to re-read. It’s a pretty sophisticated offering for an audience that’s going to be bringing in young children. They’ve done a clever job of giving the adults something, giving the 10-to-12-year-olds something to latch onto, and there’s just enough energy, animation and color to keep the younger ones captivated.

So what’s your take on the famous Mr. Toad?

Toad is a big baby, a spoiled little brat. You never know what’s going to come out of his mouth, and I’ve sort of been given creative license to run with it. He’s O.C.D.; obsessed with the idea of MORE, and all that entails.

It is customary, you know, to ask an actor about the qualities that he shares with his role, so here goes: What part of yourself do you see in this Toad?

I’m a compulsive shopper! I’ll go to the grocery store for a few things, and come home with half a fridge. I’m that way with clothes too. It’s fun to tap into a character with endless resources. He’s the most sprightly, off-the-wall version of Toad you’ll see. As we get closer to finishing act two, he seems to get crazier and crazier.

When you say you’ve been given creative license here, have you had discussions toward that end with your director, Amanda Dehnert?

Amanda is an ego-less kind of director. She wants to hear what you’re thinking. And until I worked with her, I hadn’t experienced that kind of a creative environment. You feel comfortable spewing out your thoughts with her.

It’s just about every actor’s dream to be in on the ground floor of a successful show, to set the pace for all to follow. But if you weren’t doing this, which established character have you always dreamed of playing?

My dream role has not been written yet. Most great roles are built from the ground up, with the contributions of the actors who introduce the characters.

Still, it’s got to be a kick to channel your energies into this little guy who embodies so much of everyone’s devil-may-care desires, and to work with that songwriting team.

I enjoy the score. If we remove all the pop and rock scores that are around these days, we’re left with good old-fashioned musical theater songs with catchy tunes, wonderful melodies. That’s what we’re working with here. You’ll feel like a kid again. And I’m looking forward to wreaking havoc on this stage!

Grammy-winning composer Mike Reid as he appeared during his pro football career in the 1970s, and at the keyboard in a recent Nashville concert.

Mike, I understand that you’re still based in Nashville, and I imagine it’s a bit of a hike for you to spend so many hours here in Red Bank working out all the details of this new show. But then it’s probably safe to assume that you and Sarah had a pretty positive experience with Two River and IN THIS HOUSE.

MIKE REID: My experience with In This House was absolutely the greatest time I’ve had in theater. We had a first-rate cast, and it really drives home the difference that a top cast makes.

So how did A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS come together? Did Two River reach out to you as a commission, or did you bring the idea to them as something that meant a lot to you when you were a kid?

I didn’t grow up with it. I was familiar with the title, but I never knew the story well. In fact, I was not on board until I read Mindi Dickstein’s book for the show. From my experience, poetry and literature doesn’t always sing when you try to adapt it into a different form. I got the sense, from a purely musical point of view, that this thing will SING. But even then I was thinking this is crazy, I can’t possibly write a piece in that short amount of time.

And yet, here you are!

Well, I’m a worker bee… and I always responded to a good coach. A good coach can get you up at three in the morning for the good of a team effort, and Mindi was like ‘Yes! We can DO this!’

Maybe there’s a little of Mr. Toad in Ms. Dickstein, the full-speed-ahead type who can talk others into going along with his latest thing.

The character of Mr. Toad is a trust fund baby. He’s got some growing to do, but he’s got a marvelous heart.

These characters just beg for energy. It’s all projected outward. In this story there’s a lot of room to identify the characters, and the group we have now really bring these characters to life, really become these creatures.

But you’ve got to write for the audience — and you’ve got to watch the ballads if you have an audience full of young kids.

Hey, I still squirm during most big ballads. The flip side is that many people who aim things at children tend to underestimate a kid’s capacity to ‘get’ the story.

Right, the fear is that you’ll aim too low. Most kids are a lot smarter than that. I’ve had moments with my kids, when I realized that my versions of them – and THEM in real life; their smart and independent selves – were NOT the same thing.

You called yourself a ‘worker bee’ a few moments ago, which kind of leads into how we humans compare ourselves to our animal cousins sometimes. You must have tapped into some of Toad’s own restless energy when it came time to make this project a reality.

I just kind of let it rip, to remind myself of the saying that the first thought is the BEST thought. Let the initial impulse be your guide!

A Wind in the Willows Christmas runs preview performances on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon; opens at 7pm on Saturday, December 15; and continues with a schedule of evening and matinee performances, December 16 through 30. Tickets are $50 – $55 for adults (or $25 for anyone 18 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on BeforePlay presentations, dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.

Remember: Nothing makes a Red Bank friend happier than to hear "I saw you on Red Bank Green!"
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