Some children’s theater claims to have parental appeal but does not do much to follow through on the promise, but A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS (based on the classic story by Kenneth Grahame) does its best to involve the fully-grown members of its audience. There are a few dialogic winks and nods to the parents, including a recurring line about how Schnapps is a part of Christmas.
But the most successful merging of child and adult appeal occurs in the music, which there is more than plenty of. While some songs drag, their melodies failing to linger in the backs of our minds, most are aesthetically engaging and narratively purposeful. And the real strength in the music (composed by Mike Reid, lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger), is that the lyrics have the levity and playfulness that children can relate to and the instrumental accompaniment which is often unorthodox and surprising.
One song in particular, a sort of tentative ballad of friendship between the Mole and the Water Rat (their platonic love story is the emotional centerpiece of the play), is especially indicative of how the captivating music functions in WILLOWS. The Rat (Justin Keyes) is a hopeful hesitant poet and the Mole (Mike Faist) spends a lonely life underground; together they form the unlikely character pair typical of many children’s tales.
The lines in Ratty and Moley’s song are all about the struggle of making oneself inviting and vulnerable enough to embrace a new friendship – something with a mostly universal appeal and especially relevant for many of the children in the audience. But the piano music behind the words is dynamic, fascinating – resembling Bruce Hornsby at times – an unorthodox for a musical score (even one in a slightly more personal setting like Two River Theater).
On the occasions when the music and choreography fall flat, there tend to be a large group of performers onstage. The movement can get frenzied, the story can get campy and over-the-top, the personality can sink into the showmanship a bit. But the solos and the duets keep A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS interesting to the audience as a whole – regardless of its median age.
A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS
Music by Mike Reid
Lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger
Book by Mindi Dickstein
Adapted from the children’s novel by Kenneth Grahame
Directed by Daniella Topol
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue
Red Bank, NJ 07701