Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Badgers and Rats and Moles, oh my

The Wind in the Willows at Olympia Family Theater  

reviewed by Alec Clayton

Kate Arvin, Jason Haws, Ryan Holmberg, Ingrid Pharris Goebel

Olympia Family Theater’s world premiere of The Wind in the Willows is something very special of which the people of Olympia should be proud and to which they should be flocking in record numbers.

OFT attracts some of the best theater people in the area to work on their productions — the list of cast and crew for this show is a who’s who of local theater.

Adapted by Andrew Gordon from the classic children’s book by Kenneth Grahame, this production is a musical directed by Jenny Greenlee with music by Bruce Whitney and additional lyrics by Daven Tillinghast, Gordon and Whitney.

Jason Haws and Heather Christopher
The story kicks off on a fine spring day when Mole (Kate Arvin) gets tired of housecleaning and decides to go outside and take a walk. She meets up with Rat (Ryan Holmberg) who takes her on a boat ride on the river to Toad Hall, where they meet up with Toad (Jason Haws), a rich, conceited but friendly and fun-loving creature. Another friend, Badger (Ingrid Pharris Goebel) enters the picture and they all become concerned about Toad’s obsession with motor cars.

Toad ends up being arrested for stealing a car and driving it recklessly, and he is thrown in jail. His friends help him escape. They’ll do anything for a friend, and that, indeed — the power of friendship — is what this play is all about, as expressed by the repeated phrase, “Friendship is not a thing we say, it’s a thing we do.”

The cast is wonderful.

Haws throws himself into his part with unrestrained enthusiasm. With big, wild gestures, and an amazingly mobile face with expressions that change lightning fast, he’s like a combination of Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke — reminding me of why in 2007 I named him Best Actor in a Comedy in my “Critic’s Choice” column for his role as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Harlequin Productions.

Holmberg plays Rat (or ”Ratty” as the other animals call him) with just a touch of comedic restraint. He’s the epitome of the stiff upper lip and ramrod straight back, but his eyes sparkle with a hint of mischievousness. He’s quite proficient with a stick-sword as he proves in a very skillfully choreographed stick fight with the Chief Weasel (Kyle Henrick). Holmberg impressively choreographed the scene himself.

Arvin plays Mole as a very sincere, agreeable and kind creature. She empathizes with everyone and it’s easy for everyone to empathize with her. She’s also quite supple in her physical moves.

Badger is described in the book as an individualist who "simply hates society." Goebel plays Badger as a more complex character — proud, noble and likable.

There are many wonderfully wild scenes in this play including every appearance of Toad and one scene in which an ensemble actor (Heather Christopher) steps out of a mirror to become Toad’s mirror image brought to life. It’s a classic comic bit of mimicking each other’s moves, and it’s done with style and precise timing, although unlike some other takes on this bit — the one with Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx leaps to mind — Haws and Christopher do not exactly duplicate one another.

The set by Jill Carter is terrific. It looks like a children’s book illustration and is made with cardboard parts that easily change from trees to a table in a courtroom and to boats and cars that move about much more smoothly than such contrivances usually do. And the many set changes are made with a minimum of interruption to the action.

Kudos also go to Becky Scott and Sally Fitzgerald for delightful costuming and to Heidi Fredericks for seamless choreography.

Looking for a great local show to take your kids or grandkids to this month? Or to take your inner child? This would be it.

Performances are at 7 p.m. Dec. 13, 14, 15 and Dec. 22 and 1 p.m. Dec. 16 and 23 in the black box theater at South Puget Sound Community College’s Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, 2011 Mottman Rd. SW. More information at http://olyft.org/.

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