Becca Ayers (Mrs. Otter), William Thomas Evans (Dr. Badger) and Mike Faist (Mole) co-star in A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS, the original family musical now onstage in a new encore production at Two River Theater. (photos by T. Charles Erickson; click to enlarge)
By TOM CHESEK
“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!”
Reid — the 1970s-era All Pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, turned Grammy winning Nashville singer-songwriter — must have had a change of game plan at halftime, as he and his creative partners (lyricist Sarah Schlesinger, book writer Mindi Dickstein) have returned to Red Bank with a re-imagined version of Willows, the original family show they developed for Two River Theater Company in 2012.
Now playing at Two River Theater through December 29, the musical (adapted from the familiar animal characters and tales by Kenneth Grahame) has been restaged with a new cast, new director, new production design, and a newly highlighted focus on the element of Christmas. And — as befits a simple story of one wetland creature’s quest for a home — it’s a show that’s succeeded in finding its heart.
The citizens of the WILLOWS include Caesar Samayoa as Mr. Toad, at left, with Cole Escola as Portly Otter, Becca Ayers as Mrs. Otter, Justin Keyes (seated) as the Water Rat, Mike Faist as Mole, William Thomas Evans as Dr. Badger, Amanda Butterbaugh (seated) as a Weasel, and Sean Patrick Doyle as a Weasel.
At the annual season announcement event earlier this year, TRTC artistic director John Dias stated that “we want to make sure we’re doing work that you want to see” — and with Willows, the Two River team responded to the popular demand of their young audiences by giving them a show with “a lot more holiday spirit,” and redesigned costumes that highlight “ears and tails and fur.”
Edition 2.0 of Willows delivers on those counts, certainly, with costume designer Olivia Gajic clothing her talking Toads and Moles and Badgers in species-appropriate attire that still manages to speak of each creature’s social standing in their little community. The new set design by Clint Ramos maintains touches of seasonal flair throughout, and reinforces the world of the Willows as a place in constant motion — the detail-intensive production sees colorful pieces of scenery rolling in and out of the action, as crucial story elements drift down from the rafters, characters pop up from trapdoors, and the action often spills out onto the aisles and stairways of the auditorium.
That heightened sense of movement carries over into a newly ramped-up emphasis on dancing, courtesy of choreography by Warren Adam (Broadway’s Motown: The Musical). Even the appearance of the rich and reckless Mr. Toad in his runaway roadster — that most famous vignette from the original children’s book — is given a tune-up here, as last year’s life-size, largely immobile car is replaced by a wearable prop that allows Toad (Caesar Samayoa) to race about the set in grand fashion.
Schlesinger, Reid and Dickstein have tweaked the story and score throughout — and director Daniella Topol brings an altogether different rhythm to the material — but the most noticeable change over last year’s production is the shift in focus from the impulsive, self-centered master of Toad Hall to the gentle seeker who dwells in Mole’s End. It’s evident in the casting, with the 2012 Toad (Broadway singer Tituss Burgess) succeeded by Samayoa, who’s less of a vocalist and much more of a comic relief specialist. Likewise, the previously nerdy conception of Moley has given way to the casting of Mike Faist, a very talented young performer whose character — a solitary creature who yearns for friends and family and a real home above ground — sits at the heart of this “new and improved” endeavor. With an earnest manner and a fine voice that owns the spotlight song “Harmony Creek,” Faist sets the pace for a show that seems just a little more heartfelt somehow; not so much cynically Disneyfied as before.
“Moley” gets super support from his neighbors in the Willows — including Justin Keyes as the Water Rat with the soul of a poet, and William Thomas Evans, strong in voice as the blustering, officious Dr. Badger. Becca Ayers is fun as an animated Mrs. Otter, paired with the talented Cole Escola (TRTC’s Present Laughter), playing the nerd this time as her dreamer of a son. Sean Patrick Doyle and helium-voiced Amanda Butterbaugh steal whole scenes as the thieving Weasels, and the company doubles up as the spooky denizens of the fog-shrouded Wildwood.
The TRTC team has every right to feel proprietary toward this homegrown holiday attraction, and hints are being dropped to the effect that A Wind in the Willows Christmas may become a genuine yearly tradition at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue space — perhaps even the great wild wood beyond. While the show may yet make repeated fine-tuning trips back to Santa’s workshop, it will be an entertaining process to behold — and, in a town that once boasted a bar by the name of Toad Hall, it could be a welcome addition to December’s wintry mix of Nutcrackers, Messiahs and jinglebell rockfests.
Performances of Willows resume Wednesday, December 18 and continue with a mix of matinee and evening shows through December 29 (there are no performances on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). Take it here for tickets ($20 – $55 for adults; $25 ages 18 and younger) and information on special offerings like this Saturday’s “Dia de la Familia” show for Spanish speaking audiences.