Frog and Toad hops
Take a small child to A Year With Frog and Toad at the Children's Theater Company in Minneapolis (and in November at the New Victory Theatre in New York) and it will feel like opening a spiffed-up version of one of Arnold Lobel's beloved books and stepping right into its pages.
The musical adaptation of Lobel's familiar stories, told in song, dance and speech, opens with the best friends waking from hibernation in spring and follows them through the circle of one year, as they plant gardens, swim, rake leaves and go sledding, their friendship sometimes challenged but always constant.
The play does not coddle children - no frog suits, here. Where Lobel's pals are homely amphibians in shapeless jackets and froggy back feet, the stage pair consists of two nattily dressed men who wear Edwardian spats. It takes children no more than a second to see the tubby man dressed in a palette of brown as the diffident Toad, and the lean chap wearing mostly green as his best friend, carefree Frog.
More difficult are the three characters who open the musical, carrying suitcases. They wear clothes of rich brown fabric and simple feather hats, which is certainly a clue. But, since they sport little birdlike behavior, I had to listen to their song to confirm my suspicion that they might be migratory birds, returning for the summer.
Dashing Jay Goede plays Frog; he's tall and lean and energetic, yet gentle. He's the leader, active and assured, in the friends' adventures, and he sings in a pleasing tenor voice. If these were schoolboys, Frog would be the popular kid, and what makes him so likeable is that he cares about his less physically appealing friend's happiness.
Toad's mailbox is always empty, so Frog writes him a letter. He hands it to Snail to deliver, and Snail's two-season-long mission, as he creeps across the stage between scenes, adds such a delightful throughline to the series of stories that I longed for more. Frank Vlastnik plays a variety of animals, but in Snail, he realizes a character who rivals the two main characters in charm.
Like all his clan, Frog is lean and athletic and quite different from Toad. The short and comfortably rounded Mark Linn-Baker captures the essential lumpiness of toads and nicely plumbs the anxious-to-please quality that embodies Lobel's Toad. Where Frog is active, Toad excels at lingering in bed, making cookies and sipping a cozy cup of tea.
Lobel's daughter, Adrianne, co-produced "Frog and Toad" with Bob Boyett and helped to adapt her father's stories. She also designed the attractive picture book sets of one-dimensional houses set among towering cattails and flowers. She keys off her father's paintings for frog-profiled bed heads and arm chairs; particularly pleasing is her inventive use of pole puppets and of simple scrims to create the effect of water.
Equally simple and inventive are Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, although I believe he and director David Petrarca might want to opt for either more feathers for the birds or more birdy mannerisms before the show moves to New York.
Robert Reale's jazzy and playful music underscores the songs and action of his brother, Willie Reale's, book and lyrics. Willie Reale gives Frog, Toad and Snail amusing lines: when Toad's seeds fail to come up immediately, Frog tells him they will come up soon. "When is soon," asks Toad. Frog thinks for a moment. "It's between now and later," he says. Snail dons a mailman's cap and gains a new sense of worth. "I was nothing but goo," he sings, "then everything began to gel/ But Holy Cow/ look at me now/ I'm coming out of my shell."
I have one minor gripe about Frog and Toad. In a theater company that prides itself on including and training child actors, I'm sorry to see no children onstage, and the play is ripe with minor roles for talented children.
My recommendation? Find yourself a couple of four to eight year-old kids and share their enjoyment of this sweetly innocent musical.
Until November 2 at Children's Theatre Company, 2400, 3rd. Ave. S. Minneapolis. Tickets: $9-28. Call 612- 874-0400.
Nov. 15-Dec. 1. New Victory Theatre, 209, 42nd. St. New York. Tickets: www.newvictory.org and at box office.