"Wind in the Willows," a musical derived from the Kenneth Grahame tale that opened Thursday night at the Nederlander, is tastefully written, composed, acted and designed - and has the personality of a mole.
Mole, our leading lady (Vicki Lewis), emerges from her underground home and well-stocked library to experience life above ground; she is paired off with Rat (David Carroll) for the love interest. Toad (Nathan Lane) is the comically adventurous and wealthy master of Toad Hall whose escapades with borrowed cars get him in trouble with the law. And Chief Weasel (P. J. Benjamin) and his gang, particularly his fetching companion Chief Stoat (Donna Drake). are the enemy.
But aside from a burlesqued courtroom scene presided over by Bert Lahr-like judge (John Jellison) and featuring a stutter song by the defendant Toad, as well as a couple of pleasant love songs (the dreamy "The Day You Came Into My Life" and the peppy "I'd Be Attracted") there's little to catch the eye and ear and hold on through this repectable evening.
Jane Iredale's book is unobtrusive, and the songs, with music by William Perry and words by Perry and Roger McGough, are almost equally so, being neatly though unsurprisingly developed, and lacking sufficient character to make them linger with us.
The sizable company - and among the principals I've already mentioned, Irving Barnes should be included as the elder statesman of a Badger - goes about its business with cheery professionalism with the help of light, but again tasteful, scenic effects by Sam Kirkpatrick, suitable semi-animal costumes by Freddy Wittop, and adequate lighting by Craig Miller. The orchestrations by William D. Brown come across attractively as conducted by Robert Rogers. Tony Stevens (staging), Margery Beddow (choreography) and Conal O'Brien (fight scene) have done their work competently. But that wind in the willows is mostly thin air. Ho hum.
How dare they? How dare people mire the fugitive memories of childhood by coarsening fantasies and trampling dreams?
The show The Wind in the Willows, now at the Nederlander Theater, purports to be a Broadway musicalization of Kenneth Grahame's gentle childfood classic of morosely the same name.
It is no such thing. It is a travesty.
Although The Wind in the Willows is a comparatively modern book - it was published in 1908 - it took its place virtually at once as part of educated childhood's furniture, alongside, if at a little distance, the more fanciful Alice books of Lewis Carroll.
Grahame's story of river animals "messing about in boats," and the more dangerous denizens of "the wild wood," always had a certain theatricality to it - especially in the plump persona and puffed-up ego of Mr. Toad.
It is no wonder that when A.A. Milne (the creator of Winnie the Pooh, but also a playwright in his own right) came to make his moderately successful dramatization of the Grahame book, he called it Toad of Toad Hall, and concentrated in that flamboyant amphibian.
Jane Iredale, the book writer of this shallow little musical, has to an extent, followed Milne's lead, but now we have what is in effect a romantic love interest between Ratty and Mole. What next?
But the real disservice to Grahame - and to all those childhood memories - is that these anthropomorphic animals have become utterly charmless and dreary.
The bad - the terrible - news about the show is not that it has been updated and vulgarized, although, almost of course, it has, but that they have contrived to make this most delicate of novels, in one word, boring.
Everyone, except the poor, embattled actors and the dourly conscientious designers, is part to blame. The lyrics by Roger MaGough and William Perry, for one glaring instance, make mediocrity awesome.
But the real Achilles thigh of the show is Perry's music, which is drear beyond belief, and without a scintilla of true style or original character.
The staging by Tony Stevens was almost as characterless as the score. Trevor Nunn, in Cats, has shown us very precisely what humans can do in the animal kingdom, and he achived that felicitous felinity by imposing a totality of style upon the production.
Stevens doesn't do that. Indeed, he doesn't seem to do all that much, and his inertia is matched by the modesty of the contribution made by the choreographer, Margery Beddow.
In fairness, Sam Kirkpatrick's scenery and Freddy Wittop's constumes (not particulary animalistic, but that I suppose is what was ordered) are perfectly professional and mildly agreeable.
And the performers try very hard. Vicki Lewis jumps out of the picture - she is a perfect duck as country mouse kind of a mole, sings sweetly, and can turn pathos on like a sensibly cold faucet.
Of the others, David Carroll is the romantically poetic Rat, P.J. Benjamin makes an aggressively odious Chief Weasel who seems to have strayed from a bus and truck tour of West Side Story, and Nathan Lane, knocking himself to bits while looking like a deflated peanut, probably makes the most of what is left of the role of Mr. Toad.
This is a dismal evening. I wouldn't even recommend it to adults, let alone children.
For almost 80 years, the Kenneth Grahame book ''The Wind in the Willows'' has been one of the delights of childhood. It is a story about nature and civilization, in which tiny animals are made to stand up for mankind's foibles in a lyrical world as delicate as the ''soft thin whispering'' of reeds.
It is a book to read aloud to children, and it is a work that only the foolhardy would consider transferring to the theater. When A. A. Milne wrote his own stage adaptation, he did it in the full knowledge that ''it may be that to turn Mr. Kenneth Grahame into a play is to leave unattractive fingermarks all over him.''
The concocters of the Broadway musical ''The Wind in the Willows,'' which opened last night at the Nederlander Theater, have left footprints as well as fingermarks. In fact, the show is so errant in concept, design and execution that one wonders if anyone had a compass in the first place. It is a Wild Wood's distance from its source - and from the Ernest H. Shepard illustrations.
Consider the Mole, sex-changed into a female Mole, with her heart set on the Rat, handsome Ratty, the Robert Redford of the River Bank. The newly erudite Mole looks up at the sky and compares it to a Monet painting. The Mole is now a bookworm, referring to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and declaring that she has ''great expectations,'' presumably as Mrs. Rat. She closes the first act with a chorus of ''The Day You Came Into My Life,'' a tune that might have been more appropriate if sung by one of Jerry's Girls.
The Chief Weasel is a sleazy cousin of Sportin' Life who has a fancy for the Mole. His song is ''Evil Weasel,'' which sounds like a blurred version of ''Easy Street'' in ''Annie.'' As for Mr. Toad, the audacious, fearless Mr. Toad has been dandified into a prig who has a penchant for awful puns, telling us of his relatives, Sigmund Toad and Leo Toadstoy.
Whenever the opportunity exists, the show literalizes - and often vulgarizes - the original. Mole's trek to see the Badger is a cute cut below ''Little Red Ridinghood,'' with the Weasel cast as the Big Bad Wolf. Toad's trial for derelict driving is vaudeville shtick and the assault on Toad Hall to restore the mansion to its rightful owner is a standard, stock company sword fight. Along the way there are Keystone Kops rushing through the plastic greenery.
One dubious choice was to have actors play animals as if they are people. Except for odd wisps of hair (Rat needs a shave, Toad has spit curls), the leading players look like themselves, although supporting rabbits, stoats and weasels sprout ears and whiskers. As a result, Mr. Grahame's tale is unparabled. A Muppetized environment might have been a more valid approach.
With all the divergences, there is the question of what drew Jane Iredale (as adapter) and her musical collaborators, William Perry and Roger McGough, to ''The Willows'' in the first place. Perhaps it was the story, Toad's automobile kleptomania and his reckless endangerment of all things great and small. This is, however, not a very strong line on which to string a musical. To beef up the evening, Miss Iredale has added an average Rat-and-Mole romance.
There have been changes on the road from the Folger Theater to Broadway, including a switch in directors (Tony Stevens gets the credit), but it is unlikely that any of the changes have been an improvement. Small certainly would have been better. On a big Broadway stage, ''The Wind and the Willows'' cannot help but remind us, to its detriment, of other attempts at all-family entertainments. ''Cats'' collides with ''Oliver,'' and the hit-and-run victim is Kenneth Grahame.
Considering the artistic impoverishment, one's sympathies go to some of the hard-working actors. Vicki Lewis's Mole, a candidate for the Sandy Duncan crown, is impish; David Carroll's Rat is likable, though wimpish and Nathan Lane's Toad is a drop-out from an English boarding school ''Animal House.'' In one number, Mr. Lane escapes from prison by taking advantage of Nora Mae Lyng as the jailkeeper's daughter. Their song is amusing, although it cavalierly departs from the scene in the book.
The music by Mr. Perry is mellow in a mundane fashion; it may remind you, unspecifically, of songs from other shows. The lyrics by Mr. Perry and Mr. McGough reach for rhymes. Margery Beddow has devised some bland stoat and weasel choreography, and Sam Kirkpatrick's scenery, in common with the show itself, appears to be designed-by-machine and free of natural ingredients.
The Committee on Anthropomorphism and the Reckless Travesty of Our Nostalgia (CARTOON) is now in session. After ''Hamelin,'' ''Just So'' and ''The Wind in the Willows,'' perhaps a moratorium should be declared on shows in which animals are portrayed by people. In honor of the canines who played Sandy in ''Annie'' and of Hermione, the talented duck in ''Scrambled Feet,'' Animal Equity might be advised to begin a class action suit.