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Review: Toad hops to the top in ‘The Wind in the Willows’

Whimsical rats, moles, voles, weasels, otters, ferrets, stoats, rabbits and badgers abound in Wise Fool Family's production of Kenneth Grahame's beloved classic, "The Wind in the Willows." Embarking on a great adventure along the river and out in...

Whimsical rats, moles, voles, weasels, otters, ferrets, stoats, rabbits and badgers abound in Wise Fool Family’s production of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved classic, “The Wind in the Willows.” Embarking on a great adventure along the river and out into the spooky Wild Woods and back again, the menagerie of animals inhabiting Grahame’s world are anthropomorphic representations of both the best and worst elements of human nature.

Many of the company’s 10 actors play more than one animal role with strong energy and a great sense of fun. Yet, it is the ever-reckless Toad of Toad Hall (Mike Pederson) who steals the show. Things start off slowly in Act 1, but from the moment Toad takes the stage, cavorting around in his preposterously orange checkered jacket and baggy knickers, the evening is undeniably his.

Pederson is, at turns, both Shakespearian and Monty Pythonesque, with his divine repertoire of goofy facial expressions, silly noises and wacky actions. Rat (Devin P. McKinnon), Mole (Alec Schroeder) and Badger (Ben Robinson) are Toad’s sincere and empathetic pals who spend much of the proceedings just following in his wake trying to prevent him from creating more chaos.

While director Nathan Payne gives all the supporting players moments to shine, Pederson’s over-the-top shenanigans make him the obvious audience favorite for both children and adults. The wild and crazy scene of Toad’s imagined wild “poop-poop-poop” motor car ride is worth the price of admission alone.

Chani Ninneman’s play adaptation has many of the light-hearted adventures and much of the wonderful lyricism of Grahame’s original book. At an hour and 45 minutes (with intermission), however, the evening feels a trifle long for a play designed for children. A trimming of a few of the slower, talkier scenes could have still maintained the heart of the story and kept the younger set more connected at times.

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The pace picks up in Act II, however, and the show motors along with a “pip-pip cherrio” and a “bump and go” that make it more engaging than Act I. With an all-out knock-down battle to regain Toad Hall from the nasty varmints who have taken up residence, the evening comes to the requisite happy ever after ending.

Jeff Brown’s design features some lovely scenic elements including hanging willows that sway slightly in the “breeze,” a large Victorian filigree wood cutout, and an adorable boat and colorful car that glide across the stage. Kristen Biles’ witty costumes and Jamie Snyder’s creative makeup and hair designs are also integral to the show’s overall colorful visual style.

Bravo to Wise Fool and their Stage & Page program for providing a copy of the book “The Wind in the Willows” to every child attending the show. Cheers, too, for Wise Fool’s policy of “pay what you can at matinees,” making the magic of live theater accessible for everyone.

If you go

What: A play adaption of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”
Where: Manion Theater on the campus of University of Wisconsin Superior, 1805 Caitlin Ave.
When: May 20-29; Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets: Adults $14, students $8, matinees are pay what you can at the door.
Info: (218) 269-4953, wisefoolshakespeare.com


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