A SHOW AGLOW
'Frog and Toad' delightful, insightful
Friday, January 20, 2006
By David Cuthbert
Theater writer / The Times Picayune
The two granddaughters we took to see "A Year with Frog and Toad" knew the Arnold Lobel stories on which the show is based. Annabel, who's 7, read one to 5-year-old Tegan on our way to the theater. Then I slipped in the CD of the show and turned to the song, "It's Spring," which musicalized the story they'd been reading, about Frog trying to rouse Toad from hibernation.
Lobel's whimsical tales are about these two good friends and their swamp buddies, Turtle, Snail, Mouse, Lizard and a trio of Birds. It's a seasonal, full-circle musical and the action consists of simple, everyday things like planting a garden, swimming, baking cookies, flying a kite, telling a scary story and the thrills and dangers of snow sledding.
You'd think that a stage version of this material might musically fall somewhere between "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers," and in a couple of touching instances, it does. But mostly, the Robert and Willie Reale songs comprise a lively, razzmatazz musical score à la early and mid-career Irving Berlin. The show also possesses grace notes of theater magic and happy wonder that evoke "The Fantasticks." "Frog and Toad" has charm, delight and insight, reminding us that a true friend is one of life's great gifts.
The show is a major treat in its local premiere by savvy producer-director Brandt Blocker and a cast of five expert singing actors at the top of their game.
Jimmy Murphy, whose stage demeanor is friendliness itself, plays the patient, fastidious Frog as a polished song-and-dance man; one of nature's noblemen. "Uncle Wayne" Daigrepont is the more excitable, anxious Toad, "who's not so good at sports, and of course he's got those warts." Daigrepont is very funny and displays the controlled finesse of a great musical theater clown.
The chirpily harmonious Bird Trio, who migrate with suitcases in hand, are the luminous Liz Argus, energetic Scott Sauber and personality kid Lindsey Price.
Sauber also plays Snail, delivering the mail with Casey Leigh Thompson's revved-up choreography that gets him nowhere fast, as he sings, "I put the 'go' in escargot," which eventually leads to the exuberantly performed showstopper, "Coming Out of My Shell."
Memorable numbers include "Getta Loada Toad," where everyone (even Toad) agrees that "Toad looks funny in a bathing suit," "Cookies," which the many kids in the audience cheered since the characters make a crumbly mess of the stage, and the soft-shoe counterpoint "He'll Never Know."
The Solomon Theatre at St. Martin's Episcopal School is an attractive, comfortable 500-seat house, technically well-equipped, to judge from Gary Solomon Jr.'s dazzling lighting.
The pre-recorded musical accompaniment sounded great and posed no problem, although some second act mike static did.
"Frog and Toad" is a family show that positively glows. You couldn't ask for a better vehicle to introduce your child to live theater, and to share the experience while you're at it.
A Year With Frog and Toad
Theatre Critic / Ambush Magazine
It's a shame that that talentless Brandt Blocker keeps putting on shows. You'd think he'd finally realize his shortcomings and go into something like mold removal.
Of course, the preceding paragraph is pure balderdash, put there in the hopes of distracting anyone who might give him a job out of state. Having originally evacuated to Texas, we in New Orleans are fortunate that Blocker has returned home to continue his string of illustrious productions.
The latest of these, A Year with Frog and Toad, was to have been presented at Six Flags but Katrina forced its relocation to the St. Martin's Episcopal School's Solomon Theatre in Metairie. And a fortuitous move it was. If the theater is a tad antiseptic, its 500 seats well suit the intimate nature of
this off-Broadway-originated show that failed to find an audience in the vast cavern of a Broadway home. Likewise, for a production that appeals to kids of all ages, what better place for it than on a school campus?
A Year With Frog and Toad was adapted from Arnold Lobel's "Frog and Toad" books. I admit being unfamiliar with them; I was more a Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh kind of kid.
This particular group of anthropomorphic animals is a throwback to a kinder, gentler, pre-video games era. Episodic in nature, it concerns simple tales of gardening, swimming, raking leaves, telling a scary story and sleighing down a snowy hill. Yet filtered through Robert Reale's memorable music and Willie Reale's witty, but not self-consciously so, lyrics, Frog and Toad becomes an utterly charming depiction of and a paean to the joys and satisfying nature of pure friendship.
Making up for what I imagine to be a shoestring budget with galoshes-full of imagination, Blocker has fashioned a cute, in the best sense of the word, and thoroughly delightful evening, successfully negotiating the fine line between what could've been overly sentimental tripe or banal camp, either of
which would have been fatal. By keeping the emotional level of the show true and straightforward, Blocker banishes thoughts of interspecies homoerotic bestiality. Emanating warmth and never condescending, Frog and Toad captivated the kids in the audience at a recent performance while
enthralling the adults there as well.
As the ever sanguine Frog, Jimmy Murphy gave not a flashy performance but one of such solidity and decency, leveled with a dash of sly wit, as to achieve the illusion of not "acting" at all; thoughtful and caring, he's the friend we all wish we could have. Embarrassed to be seen in a bathing suit yet hilariously doing an "interpretive dance", "Uncle Wayne" Daigrepont made the "lazy, not brave" Toad thoroughly endearing; slightly neurotic and self-centered yet thoughtful in his own way, he's the friend we're realistically more likely to have. Together they make a winning odd couple.
Elizabeth Argus, Lindsey Price and Scott Sauber spiritedly portrayed a menagerie of other forest creatures. Though I don't believe the lizard Sauber enacted in one scene was a chameleon that would best describe his protean performance, wonderful in every incarnation especially as a "fast" moving snail.
Having headlined in many classic musicals, how cool it was to see the amply talented Argus giving just as noteworthy characterizations to a bird and a mouse. And star-of-tomorrow Price more than held her own against the seasoned pros she shared the stage with.
Judy Claverie's snazzy costumes and Casey Leigh Thompson's simple but effective choreography added to the high quality that we have come to expect from a Brandt Blocker production.
In A Year With Frog and Toad, hands and arms always seem to be moving whether signifying a snail's speediness, birds' flightiness or the aquatic nature of Frog and Toad. They shake when scared and exuberantly stuff food into mouths. I don't know what to make of this leitmotif but there was a pleasing consistency to Blocker & Co.'s rendition of the animal kingdom, an enchanting reflection of how we wish Nature to be, not, unfortunately, how it too often is.