A musical whose title includes the word “Christmas” but begins with a song about spring? “A Wind in the Willows Christmas” wants us to believe it’s a yuletide show, probably to get annual productions — but it only gets to the tannenbaum in its final scene. Although the tuner wants to touch the heart, routine writing and indifferent direction hardly get it to the shoulder blade.
Scribe Mindi Dickstein’s by-the-numbers book has retained most of the animals in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s book and held on to a lot of the novel’s lessons, too.
Would-be poet Water Rat (Nick Choksi) meets Mole (Tom Deckman), the loner, and they become fast friends — too fast, with the fallout illustrating that genuine friendship takes time.
Mrs. Otter (Farah Alvin) who wants her son Little Portly (Dana Steingold) to make fishing his career, but the kid wants to become a chef. Eventually Mom wakes up and smells the curry, showing tykes the value of following your heart.
Then there’s the cautionary tale of Toad (imperious Tituss Burgess). His sense of entitlement makes him believe that laws don’t apply to him — until he’s jailed for driving recklessly.
Grahame didn’t write a turtle, but one is symbolically represented by director Amanda Dehnert’s slow-paced production. Laughs are infrequent and applause only polite, mostly due to the arid atmosphere Dehnert has imposed on the work.
Still, the production looks pretty (and expensive) enough, with Philip Witcomb’s evocative set resembling an abandoned amusement park perfect for a rodent takeover. When Water Rat rows his boat, a turntable makes him seem to be gliding past shoreline, and above the action is a chandelier ornate enough to pass for a production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” (Although with Act One starting in spring and Act Two in autumn, you’d think the green vegetation would change to fall colors during intermission.)
Witcomb also designed the costumes, which eschew animal mimicry in favor of character-inflected human garb. Toad, for example, wears a loud chartreuse jacket above shamrock green pants, a perfect look for an ego that’s as large as the Emerald Isle.
Composer Mike Reid belies his background as an NFL defensive tackle by writing delicate music, even sprinkling in a few waltzes that are in the traditional musical theater style. But Sarah Schlesinger’s lyrics are far less assured — Rat sings that he strives for “perfect rhymes,” and so does she. The score is amiable but undistinguished, and the songwriters are content to rest on the laurels, such as they are, of Act One; of 11 Act Two numbers, six are reprises. Some of the performances manage to perk up the proceedings, however. Choksi’s Water Rat moves like a Flying Wallenda, and the actor’s expressive eyebrows make palpable his character’s concerns about neglecting his writing. He’s genuinely moving when he decides to quit his day job as a local official and faces up to his boss.
That’s intimidating Dr. Badger, played by John Jellison, who could teach Judge Judy a thing or three on how to exercise dignified authority. Alvin’s Mrs. Otter gains strength of character once she sees what a bad mother she’s been, and Steingold’s sympathetic Portly shows the kid knows how to forgive.
As Mole, Deckman mugs with a weak-chinned face above a bow-tied neck, but he effectively swells with canary-swallowing pride when Mole unexpectedly becomes a hero.
John Garry and Kathy Connolly drearily double first as evil weasels who don’t get enough chances to prove their malevolence. Then they’re rabbits who speak in trendy lingo: “LOL, dude.”
Such language will date quickly, but that won’t matter. “A Wind in the Willows Christmas” isn’t destined to be a perennial.