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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Year with Frog and Toad: Pleasant Family Musical for the Younger Set

Also see Bob's Round-Up of Christmas 2008 in New Jersey Theatres and review of Cupid and Psyche

Frog and Toad
Terence Archie and Richard Ruiz
Arthur Lobel was an award-winning illustrator of children's books who also authored the highly regarded "I Can Read" books for beginning readers. Among them is a series of books chronicling the friendship of Frog and Toad. These books convey commendable values with gentle and pleasing humor. By adhering to the values and tone of the original stories, A Year with Frog and Toad, the musical stage adaptation of Lobel's stories by Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics) provides unsullied, holiday entertainment for families with younger children.

The musical is introduced by the five-member cast. Frog then tries to wake Toad and tell him that it is April. Toad wants to sleep another month. However, Toad is soon planting seeds in his garden and impatiently watching to see them grow. Toad tells Frog that he is always sad at the time of day when mail is delivered because no one ever writes to him. In order to cheer him up, Frog writes a letter to Toad and hands it to Snail, who is the mail carrier. Snail is so slow that he will not arrive at Toad's house to deliver the letter until it is time for hibernation. Because he looks funny in a bathing suit, Toad asks Frog not to look at him when they go swimming. Frog honors Toad's request, but the other denizens of the area arrive and make fun of Toad's appearance. Frog goes to an Island to be alone. Toad brings him tea and sandwiches to cheer him up. Frog needs no cheering up. Toad learns sometimes one just wants to be by himself. Frog and Toad and the denizens of the swamp eat cookies and discover that it is difficult, but important, not to eat too many cookies. You can chart the first act through its song stack: "A Year with Frog and Toad," "Spring," "Seeds," "The Letter," "Getta Loada Toad." "Alone," "The Letter #2" and "Cookies."

The second act is considerably livelier. Two stories are particularly helpful. One is a scary story that Frog insists on telling Toad that "may or may not" be true. Frog claims that, when he was a small boy, he was lost in the dead of night in a forest where he was attacked by the "large and terrible frog" that ate its own kind. Well staged and designed, this is easily the most satisfying, self-contained story on the program. There is also a lively account of a sled-riding accident which leads to a short lived rift in Frog and Toad's friendship.

Frog is the wiser and more sensitive of the titular friends. He is always watching out for the sillier and more nervous Toad. However, each cares for and relies upon the friendship of the other.

Richard Ruiz (as Toad) and Terence Archie (as Frog) make a delightful duo. Ruiz has the showier, more overtly comic role which he plays to full effectiveness in appropriately broad comic style. Terrence Archie is more subtly comic, portraying Frog as a slightly off-center dandy. Playing off one another within the framework of the pastiche score and serial storytelling, Ruiz and Archie perform in the manner of a team of veteran Vaudevillians.

At the beginning and end, Tara Giordano, Josh Lamon, and Meg Steedle appear in the roles of migrating birds. In between, the hard-working threesome assay dozens of roles (mostly, fauna) with enthusiasm, aplomb and myriad costume changes. Lamon has a large individual featured role complete with two solo numbers as Snail. Lamon is particularly funny in his body movement in this role. Now all Lamon has to do is to modulate his over-the-top, inappropriately hard sell rendition of his second act number, "I'm Coming Out of My Shell."

Director Jackson Gay has elicited strong and energetic performances and found a nice balance between the gentle tenderness and broad comedy present in the writing. The lively choreography is the work of Nicco Annan. Aleksandra Maslik (Scenery), Jessica Ford (Costumes) and Thom Weaver (Lighting) provide us with lush and funny visuals.

Robert Reale's pastiche score is pleasant, Willie Reale's lyrics are deft and clever and his bland book is appropriate for its young audience. Production and performances are first rate. In the first act, there is not much in the way of forward motion. While it does not transcend the genre, A Year with Frog and Toad clearly stands head and shoulders above your garden variety children's musical theatre.

A Year With Frog and Toad (Friday 7 p.m.; Saturday 1 p.m. & 7 p.m./ Sunday 11 AM & 3 p.m./ see theatre website for additional. performances) through January 11, 2009 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office:732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.

A Year With Frog and Toad. Music by Robert Reale; Book and Lyrics by Willie Reale; directed by Jackson Gay

Cast
Frog……………………………Terence Archie
Toad……………………………….Richard Ruiz
Snail/Bird………………………….Josh Lamon
Mouse/Bird…………..………..Tara Giordano


Photo: Mark Garvin


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- Bob Rendell



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