THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
In the bestial microcosm of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, the highest praise an animal can receive is that it is "sensible." A good, solid English quality like overcooked roast beef, reasonableness based on clearheaded good sense is just what characterizes the gruff Badger, resourceful Rat, and even the shy and homesick Mole.
So, with all this moderation and good sense to choose from, why do our hearts go out to the one unsensible animal-the reckless, immoderate, egomaniacal Mr. Toad, a selfish, opinionated, spoiled scapegrace who bounces from one dangerous obsession to another, fanatically stealing expensive motorcars that he invariably wrecks and having to be forcibly restrained by his sensible comrades.) Like Peter Pan and Pee Wee Herman, Mr. Toad is one more willfully stunted creature perversely refusing to grow up. What a consolation they are to the rest of us who never knew we had a choice!
Mr. Toad is easily top vertebrate in director, composer, and adapter Douglas Post's rollicking musical version. A Bailiwick Repertory remounting of last year's Chicago New Plays Festival success, Post's full-hearted offering perfectly captures Grahame's love of picnics in the English countryside and of merrily boating down its rivers, his ability to send out shocks of recognition by turning animals human and humans animal, and his Dickensian zest for quirky eccentricities. Wisely and reverently, Post's story-theater narrative sticks closely to the tale of impetuous Toad and his all-suffering friends, his scrapes and escapes, and their climactic battle with the denizens of the Wild Wood (rapacious weasels, ferrets, and stoats who, taking advantage of Toad's jail sentence for auto homicide, invade Toad Hall and turn it into a rodent refuge).
Surrounded by Michael Biddle's patchwork set of giant cattails and rushes, Post's efficient staging takes the 13-member cast through 13 songs, some brilliant (like the Sondheim-rich "Wildwood," the bouncy two-step "Duck's Ditty," and the mellow title number), some seemingly produced by a metronome, a synthesizer, and a deadline. The best, which also include the beautifully textured "My Home" (sung by the lonely Mole and Rat), the haunting "Song of the Piper," and the exuberantly antiamphibian "Down With the Toad," boast melodies as supple as their rhythms are familiar. Though too few really advance the action, each seems to come straight from the animal we've grown to know.
Best of all, Post collects here a menagerie Walt Disney might have killed for: Phebe Bohart as the selfeffacing Mole with piping Yorkshire accent, Thomas Kelly (a fine singer) as the sniffingly curious, constantly considerate Rat, and Don Renaud as the wise but stodgy Badger who's only happy when underground and asleep.
Then there's David Rice -- a memorably mischievous Toad in bright green blazer and sporty boater. With an appropriately rubber face, a smug habit of smacking his lips, and the look of the nastiest brat who ever tried to get away with everything, Rice's amphibian hurls himself frogfully from selflove (the intricately narcissistic "Mister Toad") to- selfpity ("Toad's Lament"), and finally into the calypso celebration (complete with conga line) "When the Toad Came Home." Warts and all, you can't help but love this insufferable merry prankster.
Clad in Thomas Kelly's sensible, earth-toned costumes and playing teeny-weeny field mice, a patient horse named William, a mysterious Pan-like piper, an innkeeper, two policemen, a train engineer, judge, and town clerk, and also an otter and hedgehog, the versatile cast employ impeccable and wideranging British accents and a sure sense of the feel as well as look of their collective caricatures. Wind in the Willows finally ends up just too good-hearted to be sensible.