St. Mary High School’s production of Wind in the Willows opens tonight

Janaya Fuller and Grant Alexander rehearse a scene from The Wind in the Willows. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Tonight, Mrs. Mole will be coming out of her home to explore the land of forest creatures for the first time.

Mole, played by Janaya Fuller, is the central character of St. Mary School’s Upstage Productions show The Wind in the Willows, a Broadway adaptation of the 1908 children’s novel by Kenneth Grahame.

“(Mole) is an introvert. She is just coming out of her underground home for the first time and she is exploring the world and seeing what’s good about it, and also exploring what’s evil and not good about it,” Fuller said.

The story follows Mole as she meets other woodland creatures, including Badger, Water Rat and Weasel, each with its own personality.
One of those personalities is Water Rat, played by Grant Alexander.

“He’s a very normal, relatable guy who lives on his river, really loved his river and drives a boat around,” Alexander said. “He’s just kind of a realist, not too out there.”

The production has a large cast of 24. With an additional 23 crew members and 14 musicians playing in the pit band, it’s taken months of effort to put the show together.

“I think part of the reason it’s an exciting thing or it makes people nervous is because of the work that is put in, because it’s been months,” Alexander said.

“We’ve been working at school, and then also at home working on songs and lyrics.”

Fuller has been in productions before, but nothing of this scale. She’s looking forward to putting it all together.

“It’s very cool,” she said, adding that the best part was getting to know her cast and to improve as a singer and actress. But the show comes with its challenges, too.
“There’s a big difference coming from (the St. Mary stage) to (the Rawlinson stage). It’s very different and has so many details put into it with the props and the trees.”

While the students weren’t practicing in costume Tuesday night, they were on stage with the big set, including floor-to-ceiling trees. Director Jason Van Otterloo thanked the work done by the school’s art teacher in designing the characters’ costumes.

“I really enjoy what our art teacher did for our costumes this year. She’s had a lot of time to figure out how you put a squirrel on stage without making it a cartoon,” he said.

“Because staying true to the book, they were very humanized. They had vests and coat jackets and scarves and things like that. The blend has been very interesting to figure out and play with.”

Van Otterloo picked the play this year in part because he likes to throw in a more kid-friendly production every few years, and in part because of the cast he had available.

“There are two things I consider when we pick the musical, and one is always what sort of casting I have available and how experienced my cast is going to be. I can sort of gauge that from the previous years and Wind in the Willows, just because the characters are animals, it allows a bit more flexibility in the cat,” he said.

“I also like to rotate through every now and again to do a show that may be more kid-friendly. We’ve had a couple of years of shows, last year was Elvis music and the storyline was a little more complicated, Wind in the Willows is based off … a children’s story.”

Even though it is based on a children’s story, it can still be enjoyed across age groups, Van Otterloo said.

“Younger kids will be able to come to this and love it for the visuals just as much as the story, the singing and the dancing,” he said. “I’m hoping the adults want to come because it does still have a good plot to it, and for some of the adults it will be very reminiscent of things they may have read when they were younger. I also really enjoyed the book, and felt like it’s a good chance to reintroduce it to people who may have missed it growing up.”

Van Otterloo’s young cast is looking forward to opening night, and they’re confident the show will be well received.

“Today has been a very long day, so we might be getting a little shaky near the end here,” Alexander said after a day of just running scenes from cue to cue. “But I think we’re well-prepared.”

Fuller agreed.

“I’m very excited,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it a lot. I’m not really nervous because I’m very confident that we will do a really good job.”

Van Otterloo is also confident the show will go well. Cue-by-cue day, Tuesday, is really his last day to be hands-on with the show.

“After today, they take ownership of it so much that my job is to watch. My job is just to make sure they’re doing what they do. They problem solve, they work through all the steps and the ownership the students take is awesome,” he said.

“It gives them something that they can say, ‘this is mine’.”

Wind in The Willows runs from May 9-12 at 7:30 p.m. at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre. Tickets are $18 for adults and $13 for students. They can be purchased at the Rawlinson Centre box office.