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Anthropomorphic animals

A holiday treat at Olympia Family Theater

From left: Badger (John Serembe), Rat (Mandy Ryle), Toad (Jordan Richards) and Mole (Hannah Eklund). Photo credit: Alexis Sarah

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The Wind in the Willows at Olympia Family Theater offers a respite from the usual spate of Christmas stories this time of year. It is a delightful romp in the woods and trip down a river by a loveable group of anthropomorphized animals who demonstrate the power and beauty of friendship. "At its heart, it's a story about community and the connections we make with each other, which is pretty Christmassy," said director and playwright Andrew Gordon, as quoted in The Olympian by Molly Gilmore. Gordon adapted the musical from the 1908 children's novel by Kenneth Grahame and co-wrote the lyrics with Bruce Whitney and Daven Tillinghast.

Set in pastoral woods in England at the turn of the 20th century, The Wind in the Willows is the tale of Toad (Jordan Richards), who is fun loving and adventurous, and something of a klutz who constantly gets in trouble and must be helped out by his friends -- even to the extent of helping him escape from jail by dressing him up as a washer woman who doesn't know how to wash clothes in a tub; doesn't even know it requires water. The scene in which Toad attempts to prove to the barge woman (Reva Rice, who also plays Chief Weasel and Pilot) is uproarious. And this is but one of many Vaudeville-style skits Richards pulls off enthusiastically.

None of the actors use animal masks. Rather, they wear delightful period clothing by costumer Mishka Navarre from a time when automobiles were a rarity and driven only by the wealthy and adventurous, and they act more like humans than animals. Toad is almost fatally attracted to motor cars, to the point of stealing one, wrecking it and getting tossed in jail.

This is the second time OFT has produced The Wind in the Willows. The 2012 production featured Jason Haws, Kate Arvin and Ryan Holmberg, and was directed by Jenny Greenlee. This new version is directed by Gordon and stars, in addition to Richards as Toad, Hannah Eklund as Mole, Mandy Ryle as Rat and John Serembe as Badger. This new version has been updated with an added Christmas Carol and three other new songs -- nice additions to their earlier hit.

Richards is terrific. His wild expressions and physical humor crack up the audiences. Eklund plays Mole as a shy and loveable character audiences can easily relate to. Ryle is a likeable Rat, and she sings beautifully. And Serembe is crusty and funny. His immense stage presence undeniable. Every time he stepped on stage opening night the audience broke into laughter.

The large supporting cast is also noticeably good. Their fluid handling of many roles and their easy movements into and out of an often-crowded set is flawless, thanks to Gordon's direction and choreography by Amy Shephard.

At right at two hours including an intermission, The Wind in the Willows is slightly longer than the usual children's show at OFT and has more adult appeal than many of their shows.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, 7 p.m., Friday; 2 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, through Dec. 22, $15-20, pay what you can Dec. 5, Olympia Family Theater, 612 Fourth Ave. E, Olympia, 360.570.1638,

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