The Children's Theatre Company Production of
Spring is looking a whole lot brighter now that A Year With Frog and Toad is back in town.
The delightful family musical is now opening on Broadway at the Cort Theatre after a successful engagement at the New Victory Theatre late last year. With its blend of talented performers, charming characters, and smile-inducing songs, the timing for the show still seems perfect - who, couldn't do with a healthy helping of premium good cheer these days?
And that's what A Year With Frog and Toad unapologetically and unfailingly provides. Younger children and their parents may well recognize the characters from Arnold Lobel's series of childrens' books, but you don't need to worry about it if you don't. Brothers Willie and Robert Reale, writing the book and lyrics and music respectively, and director David Petrarca have done everything possible to put enough in the show to entertain everyone of every age and level of theatre experience.
Those most likely to be disappointed are those searching for a significant level of complexity or irony in the show. For the record, there's not a great deal, but nor does there need to be. Designer Adrianne Lobel (Arthur Lobel's daughter) has worked with Petrarca to create a family vaudeville house in the Cort Theatre, and some of the numbers are played "in one" in front of a backdrop displaying a huge, smiling cloud; this is a world where imagination is theatre and theatre is imagination. Even Linda Twine's spry musical direction and her bouncy 7-person band support this.
But as far as concept goes, that's more or less it. The rest of the show is consumed with giving its audience a great time using traditional musical theatre techniques like good songs, good comedy, and plenty of heart. And the series of episodes detailing the various activities and adventures of tried and true friends Frog (Jay Goede) and Toad (Mark Linn-Baker) make it seem like there's an endless well of these qualities to draw from. Each of the stories, whether about baking cookies, telling scary stories, planting a garden, or celebrating Christmas together, is short and to the point, generally giving just enough time for a few laughs, a song or two, and a brief resolution before moving on to the next story.
But even these quickest of hits tend to stick with you. When Danielle Ferland appears, with all the requisite head and arm motions while moving toward a tempting collection of seeds about to take root, a more real bird is more difficult to imagine. Or when Snail (Frank Vlastnik), whom Frog charges with the task of delivering a letter to Toad, turns to the audience to speak about the speedy turnaround time he'll achieve, it seems no less than exactly right. (This is, of course, capped by the slowest - and funniest - snail walk imaginable.)
Yet while every piece of dialogue, every song lyric, and every motion of Daniel Pelzig's innocently-exuberant choreography, is geared to be immediately digestible by younger children, it's no less enjoyable for adults, with enough cleverness in the words and music to win over all but the most difficult souls. Frog's stirring ode to life and friendship called "Alone" communicates some fairly mature thoughts, while Snail's "I'm Coming Out of My Shell" is a raucously comic specialty aimed almost squarely at adults. The kids will laugh because of Vlastnik's boisterously wacky portrayal, but adults will laugh harder.
Goede and Linn-Baker are wonderful as the central duo, Goede tall, green, and sincere, Linn-Baker shorter, brown, and neurotic. Their bodies, their voices, their faces, and everything else seem to perfectly complement each other, and the two actors display a deep rapport that absolutely suggests the years of unshakable friendship between the two. While Jennifer Gambatese, as the third member of the chorus, is very strong in all her singing, dancing, and character work, Ferland and Vlastnik get more opportunities to steal the show, and do.
Yet, even when one performer is bowling over the audience with a song or a joke, the other four aren't far behind providing backup support or preparing to move into the spotlight themselves shortly. The performers work together and, seemingly, with the audience to tell a simply, lovely story about friendship and devotion, and succeed beautifully.
A Year with Frog and Toad sounds like a pretty good idea, but if that's not possible, may I recommend an hour and a half at the Cort? It'll be pretty hard to have a better time at the theatre this spring.