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THE TOAD GOES ON FOREVER : At 85 years old, 'The Wind in the Willows' and Rascally Mr. Toad Still Captivate Kids

March 11, 1993|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

Oh, that Toad.

Failing to maintain the stiff upper lip (if, indeed, toads have lips) so cherished by his fellow gentry, he joyfully squanders his inheritance and tears up the countryside with his furious driving.

And that wardrobe! "Singularly hideous habiliments," as his scandalized chum Badger calls them, "which transform him from a (comparatively) good-looking Toad into an Object which throws any decent-minded animal that comes across it into a violent fit."

No wonder kids love this guy.

On Saturday, the irrepressible Mr. Toad careens into the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in "The Wind in the Willows," the Golden State Children's Theatre's musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 story. Recommended for ages 5 to 10, the show will be presented at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. (Performances also are scheduled at the Garden Grove regional library April 21 and at the University Park branch library in Irvine on April 23).

Adapted by Golden State's artistic director Adriene Coros and managing director Reun Yankovich, this "Wind" swirls around the better-known action scenes from Grahame's tale: the theft of a motor-car by the piston-starved Toad; the ensuing merry chase; Toad's imprisonment and jailbreak, and the swashbuckling attempt by Toad and his pals to retake stately Toad Hall from a pack of nefarious weasels. The cast, eight professional adult actors and four children, punches up the humorous moments with slapstick and acrobatic stunts.

There are 11 original tunes in what Coros describes as "classical musical theater style," colorful sets, and period Edwardian-style costumes. And yes, we're told that Toad does chase about in a "real" motor-car (though the artistic team is keeping mum about its exact specifications).

"The Wind in the Willows" is one of eight family shows written or adapted by members of the Golden State Children's Theatre, which Coros and Yankovich co-founded in 1990. The company presents fully staged shows in theaters, parks and libraries throughout Southern California, along with a touring series of educational shows for grade schools and junior highs. Other titles include "Westward Ho!," based on writings and music by American pioneers; a revue called "Broadway Babies," and "California," a bilingual lesson in state history that began touring schools this week.

Coros said she was attracted to "The Wind in the Willows" not only for its kid-pleasing action but for the opportunity it presented to expose youngsters to Grahame's eloquent writing. "It's lyrical, that's the best word I can think of," she said, adding that she and Yankovich tried to keep the script as true to Grahame's text as possible.

Grahame's colorful, pithy descriptions of the animal characters made the actors' job that much easier, Coros noted. "The animals have some very human traits. For example, Mole is shy but curious, but Toad is wild; he often leaps before he thinks. Badger is a very patriarchal figure . . . nobody ever messes with him."

And, she pointed out, the weasels who take over Toad's ancestral home are just as pugnacious as their real-life kin, only with a better sense of humor. "They're a cross between the Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys," she said with a laugh. "Pies in the face, somersaults . . . we even have a big dumb weasel who does a standing back flip."

But along with the fun, the company hopes to send youngsters a gentle message.

"It's all about friendships, about caring, about responsibility," Coros said. "Toad learns there are consequences of his behavior. His friends will help him out, but he's the one who must face the consequences."

And that's the point on which Badger, speaking in the original text, heartily concurs:

"Independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit."

Quite so.

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