Although it’s a brand-spanking-new addition to the growing crop of world premieres from Red Bank’s own Two River Theater Company, the upcoming production The Ballad of Little Jo represents the culmination of a years-long process, through which the borough-based stage troupe nurtured and developed the highly anticipated musical adaptation that closes out its 2016-’17 season in grand style.
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.
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.