June 30, 2011 at 2:43 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Fun for all ages

‘The Wind in the Willows’
Through Aug. 14
Imagination Stage
4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda, MD

‘Charlotte’s Web’
Through Sept. 5
Adventure Theatre
7300 MacArthur Blvd, Glen Echo, MD

Deidra LaWan Starnes as Charlotte in Adventure Theatre’s ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ (Photo courtesy of Adventure)

Looking for something fun to do with the kids this summer? D.C.-area family theater offers an entertaining (and air-conditioned) alternative to parks, pools and wherever else it is those little ones like to go.

And because some children-focused troupes are employing top notch local talent and turning out productions of ever-increasing quality, it’s an outing that the grownups will enjoy too.

Imagination Stage in downtown Bethesda is currently presenting “The Wind in the Willows,” a musical adaptation of the same-named 1908 classic by Kenneth Grahame. Centered mostly on the exploits of motor car-crazy Mr. Toad (of Disney World “Wild Ride” fame), it tells the tale of four anthropomorphized pals who learn the value of loyalty, friendship and home in England’s idyllic Edwardian countryside.

It is springtime and curious Mole (Christopher Wilson) leaves his hole for the riverside where he befriends gentleman versifier Rat (Vaughn Irving). Together they enjoy outdoor adventures and meet the reclusive Badger (Doug Wilder). They also are drawn into the follies of the very rich and madcap Mr. Toad (played by Sasha Olinick who recently finished his run as Mozart in Roundhouse’s “Amadeus”). He’s obsessed with the world’s latest craze- automobiles and the results are disastrous. Luckily for Toad, he has his new friends to help him out.

It’s a transporting 90 minutes. With the help of an inventive design team, director Janet Stanford (who is also the company’s artistic director) imaginatively takes the play from place to place: river rowing, underwater, court, jail and stately Toad Hall. With the driving dusters, linen suits and boaters, Katie Touart’s costumes are very Ivory Merchant but with a hint of wildlife whimsy. A rabbit, played by Maya Jackson, sports jaunty knickerbockers; a cottontail is sewn to the back of her linen vest.

The very good cast also includes Matthew Schleigh and Phillip Reid as a gang of insufferable, thieving weasels who have neither cozy homes nor posh accents. Tia Shearer nicely doubles as a maniacal girl weasel and a stinky barge woman.

Faithfully adapted by Richard Hellesen with a pleasing song score (words and music by Michael Silversher) featuring titles like “Poop Poop!” and “Poop Poop! (Reprise)” the show keeps young audiences interested.   Imagination Stage’s theater is large and comfy. Loud and extra squirmy kids are advised to view the musical from a smallish glass room not unlike those airport smoking aquariums, but at a recent matinee there was no need — the children were rapt.

Over in historic Glen Echo Park, Adventure Theater is ending its season with E.B. White’s beloved “Charlotte’s Web” (cleverly adapted by Joseph Robinette). As readers may well remember, it’s the story of young farm girl Fern who saves runt piglet Wilbur from certain death. When Fern can no longer ensure that a growing Wilbur won’t become bacon, Charlotte an ingenious barn spider saves him by spinning phrases and words like “Some Pig” and “Humble” above his pen.

Staged by Serge Seiden (Studio Theatre’s associates artistic producing director), the hour long, fast-paced production is bursting with energy and positive lessons. Seiden, who is gay and the father of a young son, has brought together a group of well known local actors who seem to be having a lot of fun onstage portraying farm folk and barnyard animals. The lively, diverse six-person cast includes well-known local actors Deidre LaWan Starnes as a happy and gentle Charlotte and Chris Mancusi who effectively plays proud farmer Zuckerman, a blunt old sheep, and a cocky prize hog.

Wearing a pink baseball cap, pink T-shirt and pink Converse sneakers, David Hasty is delightful as guileless Wilbur. An obvious background in dance makes him the perfect human to play the springy young pig.

Because of Adventure’s very intimate space, some of the littler theatergoers end up interacting with the action on stage. At a Saturday matinee, they assisted Charlotte with her spelling and suggested that Wilbur turn around and see what spun messages his arachnid BFF had left for him. The actors skillfully and happily played off the tykes’ unsolicited participation.

What the company’s home venue lacks in size and comfortable seating, it more than makes up for in charming location. Shady Glen Echo has retained some architecturally interesting buildings from its amusement park past including the beautifully restored Spanish Ballroom.

In addition to a café, more recently added playground, and lots of free parking, the park boasts a gorgeous 1921 Dentzel carousel. And as the lines surely attest, an après theater ride is a big hit with Adventure’s audiences.

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