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Chicago by John Olson

A Year With Frog and Toad
Chicago Children’s Theatre

Also see John's review of Little Women

If it’s true that the theater-going habit is established early in life – I’ve been told that some 75% of all people who see their first live theater before the age of ten will continue to be theatergoers as adults – the Chicago theater community has another new reason to be optimistic about its future. With its inaugural production, A Year With Frog and Toad, the Chicago Children’s Theatre is introducing kids not only to live theater, but to a night at the Goodman. At the 7 p.m. Saturday evening performance I attended, a multi-generational and multi-ethnic audience, at intermission commingling with the older crowd arriving for Mary Zimmerman’s acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Pericles just down the hall, enthusiastically received a top-notch production of their own, thanks to the contributions of members of the creative community’s A-team.

Joseph Anthony Foronda (Pacific Overtures at Chicago Shakespeare, Donmar Warehouse and Roundabout) is a Chaplinesque, athletic Frog wiser than but ever generous to his friend Toad, played by Bradley Mott (the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol, Chicago Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Toad is surely the slower of the two, but Mott and Director Henry Godinez keep a sympathetic approach to the character’s mild self-delusions. The leads are ably supported by a trio including Goodman veterans Ora Jones, LaShawn Banks, and ingénue Julie Ruth (Anne in Chicago Shakespeare’s A Little Night Music). The three give crystal clear vocals as the trio of birds, and Banks makes the most of his solo moments as the snail entrusted with delivering a letter from Frog to Toad.

The production design brings the children’s book design to colorful and three-dimensional life, with Geoffrey Curley’s set of Frog and Toad’s neighborhood including a tree that becomes the killer giant frog, and Rachel Healy’s delightful costumes that combine human clothing with animal features. The fine contributions of lighting designer John Culbert, sound designers Andre Pluess and Ray Nardelli and the band under music director Jonathan Mastro are highlighted in a short post-curtain demonstration given to the audience by Foronda and Ruth.

A Year With Frog and Toad, which enjoyed a short Broadway run and three Tony nominations in 2003, is clearly a children’s show, but it nicely balances the children’s lit lessons with entertainment values that are suitable for kids without being condescending either to them or to adults. The score by Robert Reale and Willie Reale is quite listenable, and at least two of the numbers (Frog’s “Alone” and Snail’s “I’m Coming Out of My Shell”) can resonate for adults as well as kids.

It’s especially encouraging to see Chicago Children’s Theatre select a piece with Broadway credentials, and it bodes well for future productions having some crossover appeal to adult theater fans (Stephen Schwartz’s Captain Louie and Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Jr. come to mind as two likely candidates in this vein). Whatever pieces they choose, though, it seems they have a clear and important vision from introducing young audiences to theater. I didn’t actually hear this, but it would be nice to imagine a child tugging on their parent’s hand on the way out of the Goodman and begging, “Why can’t we see Pericles too?

A Year With Frog and Toad runs through March 5, 2006 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Performances dates and times vary. For tickets or more information call the Goodman Theatre Box Office at 312-443-3800 or visit www.goodman-theatre.org.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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