Kenneth Grahame's classic book, adapted here by Moses Goldberg, was published in 1908. In both the book and the play, Grahame's creatures live on a riverbank and feel superior to humans. Toad (Phil Fiorini, dressed in about a dozen shades of green) lives grandly at Toad Hall surrounded by baronial artwork featuring his ancestors and is fascinated by human toys, especially motorcars. When he steals a police car and lands in the clink, he's not at all remorseful, just inconvenienced. For a lead character in a children's play, he's unexpectedly amoral.
His amphibious friends have issues of their own. Otter (Philip blue owl Hooser) and Rat (Damron Russel Armstrong) have lost track of Mole (Dean Kelley), who has been kidnapped by a pack of weasels (Kimberly Horner, Emily Peterson and Spencer Wilson) who have usurped Toad Hall. The pals are kind of dim, though, and must consult the wise old Badger (Ray Ettinger), who has answers for everything. (He knew Toad's father and finds the heir's auto antics just too, too unfortunate.)
Pacing is everything with so much content, and director Missy Koonce overloads the show's first half with unbridled frenzy. With every line an attempted zinger and every image a would-be doozy, parts of the production have no restraint, and the story suffers. Like a Nickelodeon host, I felt slimed -- I couldn't see the story for the goop. Quieter scenes -- as when Badger is introduced and when Toad meets Alice, the prison caterer (a nod to Lewis Carroll) -- have resonance that is lacking elsewhere.
Late Night Theatre's aesthetic has been successful before in children's plays, most credibly in last season's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which Koonce remarkably co-directed and choreographed. Wind in the Willows demonstrates at times the point at which euphoria veers close to an overdose. Young Jin Choi's hip, Hawaii 5-O-inspired score, used in every scene featuring the weasels, is fun but clashes with the Victorian sensibilities of the rest of the show.
Players misplace their accents at times and tend to affect distracting mannerisms in their characters. Dean Kelley's Mole (improbably dressed as a French beatnik), for example, closes nearly every line with a spin and two finger snaps. At first, it is humorous and energetic; later, it becomes so tiresome that the actor must be saying to himself, "Oh yeah, now I turn and snap." The program notes add another distraction by describing Rat as "sensitive" and "kind" and Otter as "hypocritical yet good-natured." The actors don't play them that way.
Some scenes work well. In Fiorini's confrontation with Horner in Toad's prison cell, she is deliriously sweet, and he is pissed off. Both have agendas, and when they try to outcry each other, it's a witty war of crocodile tears. The graceful interplay between Fiorini, the stage veteran, and Horner, the Shawnee Mission East senior, is pure joy.
This weekend's premiere of The Colony, Jake Walker and Julie Taylor's musical about ants, clocked in at 35 minutes, making it the shortest theatrical event in memory. Amid flat vocalizing and redundant choreography, one can find bits of charm, yet it needs quite a bit more width and girth to be of much value.