Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A Year with Frog and Toad is back at the pond that gave it life for the first time since 2007, and it is as delightfully entertaining as ever, ready to bring joy and wonder to a whole new generation of little tadpoles. The musical is based on four collections of stories written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel, starting with "Frog and Toad are Friends," published in 1970. These delightful stories revolve around two best of friends, nattily dressed males who are too young to qualify as adults, too old to be childrenthey live in a realm without age. Toad is more the worry wart of the two, while Frog is more philosophical in his approach to life. Their stories are not about bold, scary adventures, but simple pleasures and pastimes like flying a kite, baking (and eating) cookies and sledding.
Robert Reale composed the jaunty music and his brother Willie Reale wrote lyrics and the show's book, which maintains the charm and innocence of the original stories. On stage, the stories are organized around the course of a year, starting in spring, with a trio of birds (Autumn Ness, Matt Rubbelke and Traci Allen Shannon) just returned from their southern winter quarters welcoming us as Frog (Bradley Greenwald) and Toad (Reed Sigmund) arise from their hibernation. Aside from the tales mentioned above, there is Toad planting a garden, Toad's embarrassment at being seen in a swimming suit, Toad becoming worried when Frog wants to be alone, Frog's scary story about a Big Mean Frog, raking each other's leaves (each as a surprise for the other), Toad becoming worried (he does that a lot) about Frog being late for Christmas Eve. Throughout, there is a running joke (though "running" is definitely the wrong word) about a letter sent by Frog to Toad being delivered by the steady but slow postman, who happens to be a snail. Near the end, the lovely "Merry Almost Christmas" brings the year to a close, and the finale brings us back to the start of another spring.
The cast is made to order. Who better to play the serene, steady and warmhearted Frog than Bradley Greenwald, whose glorious baritone makes each song a joy to hear. Who more readily could portray the anxious, awkward, but always good-hearted Toad than Reed Sigmund, who can draw our attention to the slightest furrow of his brow. What makes these two performances all the more winning is that both Greenwald and Sigmund act with total authenticity. They is no trace of self-consciousness or camp in their performances. They are, for all the world to see, simply a frog and a toad. Aside from playing the birds, Ness, Rubbelke and Shannon delight as squirrels, moles, a turtle, a lizard, a mouse, a frog family in the scary story told by Frog, and Matt Rubbelke's "Snail with the mail." With panache, Rubbelke struts his stuff in a great featured number, "I'm Coming out of My Shell."
A Year with Frog and Toad was first staged at CTC in 2002, fifteen years after Lobel's death. It was commissioned by Lobel's daughter, theater designer and producer Adrianne Lobel. Ms. Lobel designed sets for the original production, beautifully creating the panorama of changing seasons in the world of these two best of friends, even creating an underwater setting for the amphibious leads. Those same witty designs grace the current production, as vibrant as ever. Not only that, but Daniel Pelzig's spirited choreography, Irwin Fisch's musical arrangements, Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, James F. Ingalls' lighting design, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound design are all back from the original. A special nod to Pakledinaz's costumes, which convincingly bring Frog and Toad (along with squirrels, birds, moles and a show-stopping snail) to life, no masks needed. Victor Zupanc, CTC's music director, conducts the seven-piece orchestra with his usual flare. Director Peter Rothstein, taking time away from his stunning work at Theater Latté Da, brings these winning components together to re-create the show's magic.
The books appeared just one year after the premiere of "Sesame Street," in which Muppet characters Bert and Ernie similarly are best friends with antics based on small, tame, but meaningful events. Both pairs of buddies are models of friendships based on caring, tolerance, generosity and affection. Of the two pairs of friends, Frog and Toad's tales are gentler, slower paced, and more whimsical than their urban counterparts. They live in neighboring homes in the woods, and their pastoral surroundings play a big part in many of their stories, unlike city-dwelling Bert and Ernie. However, the setting matters less than the transactions between these two friends. They never doubt one another, they never let one another down, and each understands and accepts how the other is different.
A Year with Frog and Toad provides great examples to children of friendship, of resolving problems with calm and kindness, and of a world where happiness does not require the latest gadget, the flashiest gizmo, or the shiniest façade. If all that sounds a bit preachy and not so entertaining, I can assure you that children and adults alike are heartily entertained by the wit, creativity, humor, and joy that is embedded in this show, delivered by a richly talented cast. Bring your children, bring your nieces or nephews, or just bring yourself. Frog and Toad are great company for anyone at any age.
A Year with Frog and Toad continues at the Children's Theatre Company through June 18, 2017, at 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55404. Tickets are $15.00 - $71.00. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Recommended for all ages.
Book and Lyrics: Willie Reale, based on the books by Arnold Lobel; Music: Robert Reale; Original Director: David Petrarca; Director: Peter Rothstein; Choreography: Daniel Pelzig; Music Director: Victor Zupanc; Scenic Design: Adrianne Lobel; Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen; Orchestrations: Irwin Fisch; Stage Manager: Stacy McIntosh; Assistant Director: Sylvie Mae Baldwin; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom: Assistant Choreographer: Mathias Anderson; Assistant Lighting Designer: Steven Tonar.
Cast: Bradley Greenwald (Frog), Autumn Ness (Bird, Turtle, Squirrel, Mother Frog, Mole), Matt Rubbelke (Bird, Snail, Lizard, Father Frog, Mole), Traci Allen Shannon (Bird, Mouse, Squirrel, Young Frog, Mole), Reed Sigmund (Toad).