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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

A Year with Frog and Toad
Childsplay
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Wizard of Oz, The Drowsy Chaperone, Miracle on 34th Street, and Disgraced


Jon Gentry and Dwayne Hartford
Photo by Tim Trumbule
The many benefits of having a very good friend are at the heart of A Year with Frog and Toad. Based on the popular children's books by Arnold Lobel, the musical follows one year in the lives of best friends Frog and Toad as they perform daily chores and do various things together to enjoy the seasons. Childsplay's production of this family friendly show is full of vibrant characters and colorful creative elements that result in a winning fun-filled production with humor and heart.

Using several of the stories from Nobel's books, along with a few of their own, brothers Robert and Willie Reale adapted Nobel's books into an upbeat, two act children's musical, but one that adults will enjoy as well. Through a series of short vignettes, some funny, others touching, we learn about the two amphibians' habits and how various situations and adventures they have throughout the year both test and strengthen their friendship. Frog and Toad plant flowers in the spring, go swimming at the local pond in the summer, rake leaves, tell scary stories on a stormy fall evening, and go sledding in the winter. The end result is an engaging, fleshed out story for children of all ages.

Robert Reale's varied score includes several toe-tapping numbers and even a sweet ballad. Willie Reale's charming and funny lyrics feature some impressive rhymes that will make adults appreciate the inventiveness of the score. While a few of the segments are fairly simple, the musical does feature several recurring plot points that help tie the vignettes together and end up making the show much more than just a few short adventures. The musical briefly ran on Broadway back in 2003 and was nominated for three Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score.

Frog and Toad are written as a typical comic duo, with Frog being the straight man and Toad the comical sidekick. Dwayne Hartford and Jon Gentry play up those aspects of their roles beautifully with Gentry very funny as the worrisome, impatient, and insecure Toad and Hartford downright charming as his sensible, best friend Frog. The two play off each other very well. Since there are only three other actors in the cast, it could be perceived as a relatively small show, but those three portray numerous other creatures that inhabit Frog and Toad's forest world. And they all portray them very well, with Yolanda London especially sassy as several characters, David Jones a hoot as the slow moving snail, and Christiann Thijm sweet as the baby Frog.

This is the third time that Childsplay has presented this show and a few in the cast and creative team have worked on the previous productions. Director David Saar provides a good balance for the piece, ensuring that the serious moments land but also playing up some of the comical moments. In doing so he makes sure the children in the audience will never get too restless, as there is almost always something fun or silly happening on stage. Choreographer Molly Lajoie does a lovely job of recreating the steps originally designed by Michael Barnard, and the fun, varied, and syncopated steps are well danced by the cast. Creative elements are top notch and colorful with Jeff Thomson's clean set design especially effective in how it shows the change of seasons simply through the leaves changing on a few large trees, while Karen Ann Ledger's costumes of mismatched patterns and fabrics of similar colors and hues for each character evoke the various animals without resorting to overly elaborate animal suits. Rick Paulsen's lighting masterfully portrays the various seasons and times of day while Anthony Runfola's projections add a few fun elements to the piece.

Everyone knows what it's like to have a best friend, someone who you share things with, occasionally get upset with, but trust through thick and then. The beauty of both Lobel's original books and this musical adaptation is that they clearly show the bond that two friends have along with the fun and little things that make those friendships work. Childsplay's production of A Year with Frog and Toad has a gifted cast, fun creative elements, and skilled direction. It is a charming, humorous experience that is perfect for children of all ages as it celebrates the little things in life that make up a friendship.

A Year with Frog and Toad at Childsplay runs through December 27th, 2015, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office 480-350-2822 (ext. 0).

Music by Robert Reale
Book and lyrics by Willie Reale
Based on the books by Arnold Lobel
Director: David Saar
Musical Director: Alan Ruch
Choreographer: Molly Lajoie, Based on original choreography by Michael Barnard
Scenic Design: Jeff Thomson
Costume Design: Karen Ann Ledger
Hair & Makeup Design: D. Daniel Hollingshead
Lighting Design: Rick Paulsen
Sound Design: Christopher Neumeyer
Projection Design: Anthony Runfola
Stage Manager: Sarah G. Chanis

Cast:
Frog: Dwayne Hartford
Toad: Jon Gentry
Snail/Bird/Lizard/Father Frog/Mole: David Jones
Bird/Turtle/Squirrel/Mother Frog/Mole: Yolanda London
Bird/Mouse/Squirrel/Young Frog/Mole: Christiann Thijm


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