BLUE HILL — Imagine if you will, a pair of good old friends, messing about in a small boat, drifting lazily down a river lined with sighing willows, populated by a community of forest creatures who seem as if they are reciting a collective poem.
The two — who happen to be a water rat and a mole — tell the story of this enchanted place, occasionally breaking into hauntingly lovely or rousing song.
Seems idyllic, and it really is — a tranquil break from busy summer activities. Anyone who thinks they could use such a thing about now should consider a trip to the Blue Hill Town Hall Theater over the next three weekends, where the New Surry Theatre will perform the classic children’s tale “The Wind in the Willow,” which opens this Friday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m.
This is a musical adaption by David Post and directed by NST veteran Shari John, who has assembled a large cast of critters ranging in age from a 10-month-old otter kit to a formidable 70-something weasel. In this mix are some of the best voices in the Hancock County area, including baritone Steve Gormley and recent George Stevens Academy grad Grace Neal, who play the aforementioned pals, Rat and Mole. Another fine baritone is John Steed, who plays their reprobate friend, Toad, whose wild ways and obsessions constantly disturb the peace along the river.
Putting on a major summer musical is a challenge, John says, not the least of which is getting her large cast all together on hot summer afternoons and evenings when other outdoorsy activities beckon.
Judging from a recent rehearsal, which was only missing a couple of rodents, she has succeeded pretty well in this and the opening is simply charming, with each character adding a different depth and texture to the song with their solos.
“That was one reason I chose this play,” says John. “Anyone who wants a solo, a moment in the spotlight, has one.”
A handful of the children in the show come directly from her summer camp theater program, and that little extra bit of stage craft shows.
Like her mentor Bill Raiten, John has a gift for working with children. The youngsters in her cast speak and sing their lines with confidence, but also look like they are having a wonderful time.
I was painfully shy myself as a child,” says John. “Acting helped me build my confidence, and it’s important to me to provide that kind of experience, that outlet to other kids.”
Like Raiten, John at times employs gentle persuasion to coax the kids into remembering to stay in character, telling them:
“Remember the basic rules. Come with purpose. Have a good time. Look at the audience!”
At other times, she employs not so gentle tactics.
“Boy, that stunk!” she exclaims, shaking her head after a particularly ragged song run-through. One can see the problem. As nice as it is to have so many solo passages, the songs and narrative moments can be something like a patchwork quilt that needs stitching together.
John and her music director, Lori Sitzabee, take out their metaphorical needles and thread and set about mending the breaks and tears in this number. The next attempt is much smoother.
John says another challenge is built into the 100-year-old tale itself, which has certain moral ambiguities — mostly regrading Toad’s reprehensible behavior, such as joy riding in stolen cars and jail breaks — and class distinctions that don’t fit with today’s codes of behavior.
“In the original, Toad is Toad and never is held accountable for his actions,” says John, “but here his friends are aghast at his behavior [which they express in the rousing protest song ‘Down with Toad.’] He does change and learn from his mistakes.”
Audiences should not expect to see a lot of animal costumes on stage in “Wind in the Willows.” Instead costumers Leslie Billings and Randall Simmons have outfitted them like characters from a Dickens tale. Rat looks as if he has just stepped off his yacht, Mole is always dressed for dinner in a fancy shirt and waistcoat, and although Toad certainly lacks manners he is clearly to the manor born.
There are some clever surprises and special effects in this show as well, which should appeal to both the kids and the adults in the audience.
Performances of “The Wind in the Willows” are at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 3-4, 10-11 and 17-18. Matinees will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5, and Sunday, Aug. 12.
Tickets cost $22 per adult, $18 per senior and $15 for students. To reserve seats, call 200-4720 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com online.