Review: ‘The Wind in the Willows’ at Creative Cauldron

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Creative Caldron presents The Wind in the Willows, an original reimagining of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved classic. Directors Ellen Selby and Denise Perrino adapted this production for the performers of Learning Theater Studio, a creative program for youngsters interested in the performing  arts. This program helps strengthen their stage presence by teaching a number of helpful tools and techniques, as well as teaming them alongside professional actors for a final production. Selby and Perrino provide solid, steadfast direction for this large cast, resulting in a fun performance teeming with talent!

Mice with Ensemble. Photo by Gary Mester.
Mice with Ensemble. Photo by Gary Mester, Written in Light Photography.

Scenic and Costume Designer Margie Jervis and Lighting Designer John Sami work together to transform the intimate black box stage into a wistful, whimsical riverbank. Hand-painted leaf panels are hung throughout the space, and with glowy green lighting silhouetting a backdrop of tall grass, the sensation of sitting amongst a band of willow trees is easily imagined. A lot is done with the space without cluttering it up (with over thirty cast members, they need to utilize every inch!), and there are times when the ensemble itself becomes the scenery. Musical Director and Choreographer Matt Conner uses elements of modern dance to create a number of different effects, from trees swaying in the breeze to runaway motor vehicles. Musical compositions (paired well with fun lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith)complete the atmosphere; enchanting and serene, with the occasional upbeat tempo drumming up excitement for the character’s many adventures.

It’s the adventures of three friends that drive the story; Old Toad (E. Augustus Knapp), Old Mole (Laura Trice), and Old Rat (Shannon Rodgers) regale an audience of young woodland creatures with tales of their youth. While narrating from the sidelines, their younger selves live out the stories onstage. Constance Meade  shows a lot of talent as Mole, a cheerful and curious newcomer adjusting to his new life at the riverbank with the help of some newfound friends. The cautious and careful Rat (Morgan Beltson) often buts heads with Toad, a boisterous fellow who boasts a dangerous combination; too much money and a flair for drama. Emma Hill gets a lot of laughs from the audience with her animated depiction of Toad. Together, this unlikely trio finds themselves in a number of thrilling, and even risky, situations.

As Mole settles into his peaceful life at the riverbank, he becomes acquainted with Toad in the lively number, “Nobody Does it like Toad.” Made popular by his extravagant nature and love of excitement, Toad is a well-known and well-liked figure who finds himself in a spot of trouble after discovering a new passion: driving. The cavalier Toad gets himself in a number of accidents, wrecking his way through seven cars before his friends finally decide that he needs to be stopped in the number “Moving Along ll.” However, keeping Toad from seeking adventure (and attention) proves difficult, and the situation spirals into chaos, from heated courtroom trials to battling a horde of mischievous weasels. Can Mole and Rat help their friend before he hurts himself, or others?

The ensemble has a lot of fun with their characters, and the enthusiasm onstage easily transmits to the audience. As the young actors are improving their acting skills, the performances are not expected to be perfect. There were some instances of delayed or hesitant lines at my performance, but they were also easily overcome, a testament to the encouraging direction and supportive teamwork. Professional performer E Augustus Knapp worked well with the children, and his performance as Old Toad was as vibrant as it was silly. There is a lot of young talent brewing in this group; Talia Cutler shows off her big personality as the Chief Weasel, and Alessandra Simmons-Robles steals a scene as the effervescent Wayfarer Rat.

L to R: Nora Hill, Maya Wrona, and Maia Vollen. Photo by Gary Mester,
L to R: Nora Hill, Maya Wrona, and Maia Vollen. Photo by Gary Mester, Written in Light Photography.

As children grow, they feel the adventurous world pulling them from the comforts of home, much like the characters in this tale. It is this universal foundation that has made The Wind in the Willows stand the test of time through generations. Not only is this a great production for children in general, but the inspiration that comes from seeing their own peers onstage makes this a double win.

Creative Cauldron’s Learning Theatre production of The Wind in the Willows is a great pick for an evening out with the family! Catch Toad before he drives away!

Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

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The Wind in the Willows plays through June 19, 2016 at Creative Cauldron at ArtSpace– 410 South Maple Avenue in the Pearson Square Building, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (571) 239-5288, or purchase them online.

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