by Hugh Hunter
Quintessence, located inside the old Sedgwick Theater, is now running its first family Christmas show, an adaptation of the classic children’s novel, “The Wind in the Willows” (1908), that grew out of bedtime stories author Kenneth Grahame created for his son.
For years our family has been enchanted by the original animated movie version of “The Wind” (Cosgrove Hall production, 1983), which transforms Grahame’s weasels, stoats and ferrets into a full-blown antagonist that threatens all the animals along the Thames, then tries to throw the wastrel Toad out of Toad Hall.
But director Alexander Burns uses Alan Bennett’s adaptation (1990) where the weasel critters are more like a comical nuisance. This script lacks the menacing suspense of the movie version, though it is truer to the Grahame novel where the weasels are only minor figures.
Bennett is more interested in the fabulous wealth of anthropomorphic animals who populate Grahame’s imaginary river valley, their shifting allegiances and the deepening of a camaraderie that becomes so profound the triumph of goodness naturally follows.
The production brings out the inner child in director Burns and his talented troupe. A streaming white curtain simulates the Thames. A rolling box becomes a caravan, then a motor car, then a locomotive. Stage trap doors let you enter different animal houses, and a secret tunnel leads to Toad Hall.
Pantomiming actors eat meals with empty hands, warm hands before imaginary fires. They act out the physical movements of their animal characters. Toad’s abused draft horse Albert (Sean Bradley) hangs his head in depression. Chief Weasel (Josh Carpenter) and his gang slink and slide in their colorful gangster outfits.
Playing Toad, Khris Davis has a big tummy that protrudes from the vest of his gaudy attire (costume design Jane Casanave). Toad cannot control his craving for fast motor cars, and in a frog-like way Davis undulates his gullet when Toad is frustrated.
Toad’s ruinous impulsivity gives the villainous weasel pack their chance. And among all the animals we see in the river valley, it is up to Mole (Sean Close), Rat (Daniel Fredrick) and Badger (Jake Blouch) to form a bond of loyalty and friendship that empowers them to rescue Toad.
Jamison Foreman orchestrates and expands upon the original music and lyrics of Jeremy Sams. Full of music throughout, the show ends with a rollicking finale in which all the animals participate in a country dance, each one moving in a way true to its animal nature.
Some of Bennett’s cutesy add-on attempts at wit and relevancy feel out of place. “The Wind” stands on its own. It is devilishly hard to write about goodness convincingly, and Grahame’s work is a rare triumph, while the Quintessence production is a holiday feast for eyes and ears.
Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. “The Wind in the Willows” will run through Jan 5. Reservations available at 215-987-4450.