The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) has made it an annual December tradition (dating back to 1997) to present an original musical targeted at family audiences. Composer David Kisor and playwright Joe McDonough have been the creative forces behind each of these musicals, and this year they bring back a revised version of their initial show at ETC, The Frog Princess. The Frog Princess is a fun and well-presented tale of fantasy and moral lessons.
The Frog Princess takes place in long ago Russia, where the Tsar instructs his three sons to shoot arrows into the air and marry the maiden that finds each arrow. When the arrow shot by Ivan, the youngest son, is caught by a lady frog, the mismatched pair reluctantly wed. Ivan is ashamed of his new bride, and his brothers and new wives ridicule the couple. The Tsar offers a contest to see which son will replace him by devising competitions for the wives. With some magical help, the frog newlywed wins the first few contests. Eventually, however, it is revealed that she is actually a human princess named Vasilisa who is under a curse by the evil Old Bones. When Ivan tries to break the spell, his wife is transported to a far off land as a prisoner of Old Bones. The Tsar sends his son off to rescue his bride, and Ivan faces many trials to find Vasilisa. The young prince uses the advice that his frog princess left with him, to show kindness to all that he meets, to his benefit as he takes his incredible journey.
The book by Mr. McDonough has its highs and lows. There is a magical feel to the tale that is sure to please the youngsters in attendance, and several interesting storytelling devices are put to good use. Moral lessons of kindness, prejudice, and inner beauty are also explored, though more concrete statements on these might be helpful. The characters are funny and likeable. However, from a critical viewpoint, there are many unexplained plot points and unanswered questions. The relationships between many of the characters are also insufficiently developed. The finale number of act one feels rushed and underwritten.
The score by David Kisor is generally appealing and tuneful. The lyrics are well-crafted and witty, as best displayed in "Hey Brother." A few of the songs, such as the tender ballad "Kindness In Her Eyes" and the soulful "The Kingdom Beyond Blue Kingdoms," are superb. It is unfortunate that other numbers in the score can't match their musical level. While there are no poorly written songs, most are only acceptable rather than exceptional, and the show would be stronger with a few more exciting tunes.
As the title character, ETC regular a. Beth Harris again proves why she is one of Cincinnati's best performers. She sings beautifully, brings depth to her character, throws herself fully into the physical demands of the role, and is wonderfully endearing. Andrew Burkhart sings strongly and provides a capable portrayal of Prince Ivan in the show's largest part. Earning lots of laughs (as usual) is Michael G. Bath as the goofy Baba Yaga. As Old Bones, Deb G. Girdler is mostly wasted in a tiny role too small for her talents. Bill Schwarber also deserves praise as he recreates the Tsar, which he played in the original 1997 production. Rounding out the cast are Kevin Sketch, Annie Fitzpatrick, Jodie Schewgmann, Carrie Ragsdale, Amanda Keller, Guy Aiken, and Mike Emerick.
Director D. Lynn Meyers successfully sustains the whimsical tone of the piece throughout, as well as a delicate flow of the action and performers. Scenic designer Brian Mehring has done wonders without breaking the budget. The simple set uses arches, pools of water, and a few set pieces such as a fireplace and a throne to produce fully convincing settings such as the Tsar's palace, the swamp, and the many kingdoms visited by Ivan during his travels. Mehring's inventive lighting assists greatly in creating the appropriate settings and atmosphere as well. Reba Senske's imaginative costumes are festive and suit the show well by defining relationships and characters.
The Frog Princess is a fun, fanciful, and entertaining alternative to the many holiday shows offered this month in Cincinnati. Though improvements could be made in the material, there is also much to enjoy. The show continues through December 29, 2002 at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. For tickets, please call (513) 421-3555.