Kenneth Grahame's richly textured children's book, "The Wind in the Willows," is two stories in one: a joyful, reverent celebration of life and a comic saga about madcap Toad's obsession with automobiles.
A.A. Milne, who dramatized Toad's picaresque misadventures in his riotous 1920s adaptation, "Toad of Toad Hall," felt that the beauty in Grahame's book "must be left to blossom there."
For playwright Richard Hellesen and composer-lyricist Michael Silversher, a hint of that beauty is an essential ingredient in their world premiere musical based on Grahame's classic.
Opening today at South Coast Repertory, this lavish "Wind in the Willows," directed by A Noise Within co-founder Art Manke with a sensitivity for the tale's dual rhythms and gentle Edwardian eccentricities, is the beguiling centerpiece of SCR's inaugural season of professional family theater.
The escalating zaniness of Toad's progression from motoring maniac to jailbird to repentant lord of the manor dominates. It comes wrapped, however, in the warmth of timid Mole's pleasure in new friends and his journey into the wide world above ground.
Mole's awed discovery of the River, the Wild Wood and the sound and feel of "the willows in the wind" sets the initial tone. It's also Mole (given sweet vulnerability by Nathanael Johnson) whose poignant recognition of the importance of "home" sounds the resonant final note.
Even Mole's wistful, lovely songs -- Sondheim-esque with dark, introspective hues -- are different from those of Toad (a tour-de-force of ebullient self-satisfaction by Tom Shelton), gruff but kind Badger (portrayed with patriarchal gravitas by SCR veteran John-David Keller) and warm-hearted Rat (Danny Scheie with irresistible overtones of David Niven).
Other songs, while pleasantly jaunty and colorful, are less memorable, as are the cast's competent -- but not notably harmonic -- vocals.
Among the comic highlights are Toad's hilarious jailbreak in washerwoman disguise (Dame Edna comes to mind) and the characters' frequent, comfortable stops for teas; and luncheons and repasts of all sizes.
The Cockney cheek of some nefarious stoats and weasels also draws laughs. (Ensemble members Darin Anthony, Jenna Cole, Phil Johnson and Amy Tolsky play various roles.)
The spare quality of Donna Marquet's monochromatic set design -- with arching tree trunks, movable wooden platforms and simple, twiggy frameworks that represent boats, a caravan and Toad's motor cars -- is enlivened by essential contributions from the production's costume designer, Angela Balogh Calin, and lighting designer, Chris Rynne.
Calin's vivid Edwardian ensembles provide vitality and color, and Rynne, though his rushing river effect makes a too-limited appearance, plays a major role in the show's effect with dappled shadows, leafy silhouettes and the light and dark of changing times and seasons.
'The Wind in the Willows'
Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Fridays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 2, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 4:30 p.m. Ends June 20.
Price: $14 to $21
Contact: (714) 708-5555
Running time: 80 minutes