The Frogs A New Musical. A comedy written in 405 b.c. by Aristophanes, freely adapted by Burt Shevelove, even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. Musical direction by Paul Gemignani. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Set design by Giles Cadle. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Dance music arrangements by Glen Kelly. Aerial design by AntiGravity. Special effects by Gregory Meeh. Puppet design by Martin P. Robinson. Cast (in alphabetical order): Ryan L. Ball, Roger Bart, Peter Bartlett, James Brown III, John Byner, Daniel Davis, Bryn Dowling, Rebecca Eichenberger, Meg Gillentine, Eric Michael Gillett, Pia C. Glenn, Timothy Gulan, Tyler Hanes, Francesca Harper, Rod Harrelson, Jessica Howard, Naomi Kakuk, Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua, Nathan Lane, Luke Longacre, David Lowestein, Joanne Manning, Burke Moses, Mia Price, Michael Siberry, Kathy Voytko, Steve Wilson, Jay Brian Winnick.
Wait a minute, is this Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber?
There comes a time, late in the first act of The Frogs at the Vivian Beaumont, when it's difficult to tell for sure. From all the cavorting of hopping actors in ridiculous costumes onstage, it's difficult not to think you've arrived at the "Jellicle Ball" section of the local Sea World's production of Cats.
A quick glance at the Playbill will confirm that this is Sondheim's show, though you might find yourself questioning how the man once responsible for more serious, probing works like Company, Follies, and Pacific Overtures has now come to this. In its pursuit of musical-comedy spectacle at the expense of insight, songs with tenuous connections to the surrounding action, and a misguided central star performance, this often seems like exactly the type of musical Sondheim once rebelled against.
It's easy to see what attracted him and his collaborators to it - The Frogs, one of Aristophanes's most popular and trenchant plays, is full of questions about the complex interaction between government, art, and society. When the original incarnation of Sondheim's version - with a book "freely adapted" by Burt Shevelove - played at the Yale swimming pool in 1974, it might have found a pleasing and workable balance between entertainment and contemporary commentary.
In this latest incarnation, with Shevelove's libretto "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane - who also stars as the Greek god Dionysos - that is most certainly not the case. It seems as though Sondheim, Lane, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman couldn't agree on what should be comic and what should be serious, and in trying to make every moment everything, they've wound up with a lot of nice-looking, nice-sounding nothing, that out-of-place frog ballet being only the most vivid example.
It's neither the first nor the last, however. During the show's earliest moments, when Lane and co-star Roger Bart (who replaced Saturday Night Live alum Chris Kattan last week) perform the usually hilarious "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" to advise spectators of proper etiquette and fail to bring down the house, it's obvious something is already amiss.
That feeling intensifies as Lane and Bart take up their mantles as Dionysos and his slave Xanthias, embarking on a journey to Hades to collect renowned critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw so that he may enlighten the easily misled and coerced masses. Their travels take them to the dwelling of legendary strongman Herakles (Burke Moses), a boat across the River Styx piloted by Charon (John Byner), and eventually the palace of Pluto (Peter Bartlett), where Dionysos incites a battle between Shaw (Daniel Davis) and William Shakespeare (Michael Siberry) to see who is more fit to return to the world of the living.
While confrontation provides the show's only moments of real profundity, it's odd how little fun the rest of the journey is. Sure, the book is peppered with the type of selectively pointed humor (much aimed, only occasionally obliquely, at the Bush administration) that would have Michael Moore chortling for days, and there's a great deal of talent embracing every aspect of the production. But genuine laughs are few, and performers like Lane, Bart, and Moses, who could (and probably do) peel off jokes in their sleep, deliver clinker after clinker.
Stroman's staging is restless, frequently meandering (as in "I Love to Travel") or cheerlessly effervescent (in "Hades"). Though she tries to distract the audience from the material's failings with her trademark frenetic, prop-heavy dance numbers, she seems to be demonstrate with each new show that her large-scale musical successes as a director, Contact and The Producers, were exceptions rather than the rule. (Those who saw her Thou Shalt Not in 2001 will need little convincing of this.)
If your interest starts to fade - and, given the show's overlong, bloated running time of just over two and a half hours, that's a distinct possibility - at least there's plenty of time to enjoy Giles Cadle's ever-surprising Greek-theatre-inspired scenery, William Ivey Long's pageant of colorful (and often outlandish) costumes, and Kenneth Posner's vast array of clever lighting effects. Paul Gemignani's musical direction and Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations are, as always, beyond reproach.
Yet even their talent feels like it's being misapplied. Much of Sondheim's score - augmented and expanded from the show's original songstack - is only passable, recalling (as did Bounce's) the more flavorful work he produced earlier in his career. Even in numbers that should find Sondheim firmly in his element - like Herakles's comic "Dress Big," or "Ariadne," a ballad for Dionysos to his lost love - it seems as if Sondheim is just going through the motions, trying to fill out a score he'd already stretched to the limits at the Yale swimming pool.
Lane's not much better. One of the few writers imaginable who would tailor a role to himself and then be miscast in it, he radiates as Dionysos none the conviction, authority, or even stage presence that helped establish him as a major comic actor. (Dionysos isn't supposed to be Max Bialystock, of course, but Lane commanded the stage in The Producers; he doesn't here.) Instead of meeting the challenge of the show's most somber or hilarious scenes, he seems lost, as if he's never certain how to play any given moment for the proper effect, or even what that effect is.
Davis, Siberry, and Byner (who doubles as Pluto's servant Aeakos) turn in the production's most accomplished performances, finding layers in their roles that no one else quite manages. Even as a last minute replacement, Bart is a disappointment, playing variations on confused, bemused, and bewildered, but never establishing much of a character. Moses's bluster as Herakles feels painfully forced, and for his scenery chewing as Pluto, Bartlett should fear retribution from IATSE.
Despite all this, it's easy enough to admire the attempt of those behind The Frogs to create a truly political political musical, rather than using politics as only fodder for one-liners, as something like Avenue Q does. Similarly, you can't help but feel that everyone involved hopes audiences at The Frogs won't react like the play's titular amphibians do, accepting everything without questioning it or acting on it. The exhortations of the evening's last number, "Final Instructions to the Audience," stress doing something - anything - rather than just watching events unfold around you.
But the vehicle carrying these messages is so shaky that they're delivered time and time again with minimal impact. Audiences have come to expect much, much better from top-notch talent like Sondheim, Stroman, and Lane, and their resting on their laurels - while cautioning us not to do the same - doesn't fly, or hop, as the case may be. Neither, in the end, does The Frogs.