Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Year with Frog and Toad
Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Language Archive, The Lilies of the Field, A Jumping Off Point, and The Guthrie's Henriad in Repertory:Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V

John-Michael Zuerlein and Redd Sigmund
Photo by Glen Stubbe
Shout it from the lily pads! Those adorable anthropomorphic amphibians are back! Frog and Toad are dispensing their calming wisdom (Frog's) and neurotic worries (Toad's) while underscoring the eternal values of kindness, loyalty, generosity and tolerance. Twenty-two years after A Year With Frog and Toad premiered on this same stage, the world has much changed but the virtues of this show remain as enduring as ever.

In 2002 A Year With Frog and Toad premiered at the Children's Theatre Company. The musical was commissioned by artist and stage designer Adrianne Lobel, based on the "Frog and Toad" books written and illustrated by her father, Arnold Lobel, who died in 1987. The four books in the series were each a collection of short vignettes in the lives of Frog and Toad, nattily dressed, and devoted best friends.

The show was created by brothers Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics), with sets designed by Adrianne Lobel, based on the settings her father had created in his books, and costumes designed by the late Martin Pakledinaz, already by then a two-time Tony Award winner. The show was a solid hit in Minneapolis and moved in spring 2003 to the New Victory Theatre, a New York City venue specializing in family fare. After a sellout run there, it transferred to Broadway, but the much higher cost of tickets blunted its appeal as a family attraction. It closed after a brief run, but not before picking up Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Not bad for a pair of swamp dwellers.

Drawing from stories in the four books and adapting them to create the framing arc of a passing year, A Year with Frog and Toad begins with three other characters, peckish birds stylishly adorned in just enough feathers to give them avian cred, announcing their return from winter sojourn to warmer climes in song and dance. The stage scrim then rises to reveal Frog waking up from his winter hibernation, avoiding the coldest time of year by sleeping it away in his cozy home. Toad has also been hibernating, but his ringing alarm clock is too rude an awakening, and he smashes it to get more sleep. (Thank goodness for snooze buttons, or I'd be guilty of the same thing on a frequent basis.) Finally, impatient for his friend's company, Frog arrives to rouse Toad from bed.

Each scene that follows features an episode in the lives of these two fast friends. These are linked to the passing seasons, beginning with planting seeds for their respective gardens–with Toad needing to overcome his impatience and worrisome nature, traits that accompany him throughout the stories. In contrast, Frog is calm, patient, and ever the optimist. They balance each other out splendidly.

In subsequent vignettes through the first act, we find Toad being self-conscious in his bathing suit and taunted by the other pond animals, with a follow-up underwater ballet; Frog deciding he wants some alone time, thus sending Toad into a crisis; and a battle of willpower over saving cookies Frog baked for dessert until after they have had their dinner. In the second act we find the steadfast friends endeavoring to fly a kite and facing the birds' skepticism; the arrival of fall and Frog and Toad each plotting to surprise the other by raking up their leaves; Frog telling a scary story to Toad on a crisp late autumn night; a wild sledding adventure, with Frog the eager rider and Toad fearful, as usual; finishing up in the warmest of ways on Christmas Eve. Then the year starts over again, with the deep sleep of hibernation.

A running thread through the first act (and into the second) regards a letter Frog writes to Toad and gives to the mail carrier, who is–wait for it–a snail. Of course, being snail mail, the letter takes a long time to reach Toad. Throughout the show we get updates on the progress of the "Snail with the Mail," presented as a rollicking country-western tune, even though the snail's forward movement is not so rollicking.

This is the fourth time Frog and Toad has been remounted by Children's Theatre Company since its auspicious premiere, and the first time since 2017. It marks the final show to be directed by Peter C. Brosius, who departs from CTC after 27 years as its artistic director. Brosius was at the helm when A Year With Frog and Toad was first staged and for all of its return stagings, but this is his first time stepping up as its director. He treats the material with the regard and affection that it has garnered over the years, raising a production that is effervescent without being particularly different from what has worked so well before.

In addition to Brosius' sure hand at the helm, much exuberance comes from a fully engaged cast, each one giving one hundred percent. Reed Sigmund, a superb comic actor, is wonderful as fuss-budget Toad, who leaps (though, as we learn during the show, it is frogs, not toads, that are known for leaping) to conclusions and worries unnecessarily, but whose good heart never fails to come through.

Frog was to be played by Jay Goede, who originated the role at CTC twenty-two years ago and repeated it on Broadway. Just two days before opening night, Goede left the show and has been replaced for the duration of the run by understudy John-Michael Zuerlein, who hits a bullseye. From the performance I saw (the day after opening night), one would never guess Zuerlein hadn't been set all along to play the show's co-lead. He sings sweetly, projects Frog's lovable and sensible persona, and gracefully delivers the required movement, including a leap, for that is something frogs do. Sigmund and Zuerlein make a wonderful pair, conveying the warmth and devotion between the two that is so essential to the show's theme of friendship.

The remainder of the cast–CTC alums Becca Claire Hart, Ryan London Levin, and Janely Rodriguez–play multiple roles, all delightful. They take wing as the trio of birds on and off throughout the show, and appear as the three characters in the scary story Frog tells to Toad as well as other critters. Levin gets additional time in the spotlight as the snail-mail carrier, heartily delivering the catchy songs about the Snail with the mail, each time we chart his progress, and caps it off with a jubilant "I'm Coming Out of My Shell."

Other songs that catch hold include "Getta Loada Toad," "He'll Never Know," "Down the Hill," and a very tender song for the holidays, "Merry Almost Christmas," with the simple refrain "Merry almost Christmas, happy you are here; Merry almost Christmas, and happy almost New Year."

The costumes designed for the original production by Martin Pakledinaz still brim with imagination, and could be called both fanciful and marvelous. Likewise, it would be hard to improve upon Adrianne Lobel's scenic design, drawn with great affection from her father's work and truly capturing the books' spirit. With a cast of five, A Year with Frog and Toad is hardly a big dance musical, but choreographer Daniel Pelzig, who was also on hand for the original production, brings zip to the dance numbers, with affectionate riffs on old-style soft shoe and other tropes. The lighting by James F. Ingalls and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen add further to the overall sheen of this production.

A Year with Frog and Toad is a perfect show for the family audiences at Children's Theatre Company, but it also provides quality entertainment value and warms the heart of adult audience members, even if unaccompanied by a tyke. Would that the world was even a slice as good a place in which to dwell as the world seen through the lens of A Year with Frog and Toad. Add to that a pleasing score, gentle humor, marvelous performances and a gorgeous physical production, and you have an irresistible winner.

A Year with Frog and Toad runs through June 16, 2024, at the Children's Theater Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit or call 612- 874-0400 This show is suitable for all ages.

Book and Lyrics: Willie Reale, based on the books by Arnold Lobel; Music: Robert Reale; Director: Peter Brosius; Original director: David Petrarca; Music Direction: Denise Prosek an Victor Zupanc; Choreography: Daniel Pelzig; Scenic Design: Adrianne Lobel; Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz; ; Lighting design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Orchestrations: Irwin Fisch; Assistant Director: Samantha Martinson; Assistant Choreographer: Mathias Anderson; Assistant Lighting Designer: Ellie Simonett; Associate Sound Designer: Sten Severson; Stage Manager: Nate Stanger; Assistant Stage Manager: Kenji Shoemaker; Stage Management Fellow: Janae Lorick.

Cast: Becca Claire Hart (Bird/Turtle/Mother Frog/Mole/Squirrel), Ryan London Levin (Bird/Snail/Lizard/Father Frog/Mole), Janely Rodriguez (Bird/Mouse/Young Frog/Mole/Squirrel), Reed Sigmund (Toad), John-Michael Zuerlein (Frog).