Sunday, April 28, 2024

"A Year with Frog and Toad" at Children's Theatre Company

The Tony-nominated musical A Year with Frog and Toad has returned to where it began - the Children's Theatre. It's been back a few times since its brief 2002 Broadway run and subsequent nominations. I first saw it in 2017, and much of this review is borrowed from what I wrote then, since many of the production elements remain the same. But I had forgotten just how delightful this show is. Based on Arnold Lobel's children's books about the friendship between a frog and a toad and commissioned by his daughter Adrianne Lobel, whose original scenic design is used in this production, Frog and Toad is an utterly charming musical. Like many shows at CTC, it's designed with children in mind, but its sweet and simple story is so clearly and entertainingly told that it's a joy for all to behold. This is the final show directed by Artistic Director Peter C. Brosius, who is retiring after 27 years and countless incredible productions, many of them world premieres. This playful, funny, and sweet show is a wonderful swan song for Peter (continuing through June 16).

The musical begins at the beginning of the year, with Frog and Toad waking from hibernation in April (the chirping frogs in the wetlands behind my house have yet to wake up, they must be sleeping in like Toad). We follow them throughout the course of the year - planting a garden, swimming in the pond (even though "Toad looks funny in a bathing suit"), flying a kite, raking leaves, sledding down a hill. Pretty mild adventures, but done with such a sense of fun and friendship that it's impossible not to be charmed by them.

Frog and Toad (John-Michael Zuerlein and Reed Sigmund)
(photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
At the heart of this story is the undying (although at times tested) friendship between Frog and Toad. One dignified and serious, the other a little bit of a mess, they're very different animals but the best of friends, in an Odd Couple sort of way. Longtime CTC company member Reed Sigmund returns to play Toad (the bit-of-a-mess one), and as usual cracks me up with every facial expression and physical comedy choice. He's well-matched in John-Michael Zuerlein as Frog, with a lovely heartfelt performance. The two really are a darling duo and so much fun to watch.

the birds! (Janely Rodriguez, Ryan London Levin, and
Becca Claire Hart, photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
This musical employs a five-person cast, which is just the right size for this intimate story; a large ensemble would just overwhelm it. Busy ensemble members Becca Claire Hart, Ryan London Levin, and Janely Rodriguez are a delight as a multitude of creatures, including a trio of birds whose coming and going marks the turn of the year, with some yummy three-part harmony. They're all so playful with some great animal physicality. The entire show, under the direction of Peter Brosius, is playful and inventive, sweet and touching without being cloying.

cookies! (Reed Sigmund andJohn-Michael Zuerlein)
(photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
The score (by brothers Robert and Willie Reale) is fun and clever and references a range of musical styles, and music co-director Victor Zupanc (with Denise Prosek) and his small pit orchestra keep it humming along. Daniel Pelzig's choreography is perfectly suited to the music and the story, a highlight being a little leaf-raking soft shoe. Adrianne Lobel's scenic design is quite striking, with many different colorful backdrops (like 2-D drawings you might find in the books) and large pieces for the houses and outdoor elements. Flowers growing, kites flying,and sleds sledding are accomplished with some clever and charming practical effects. Martin Pakledinaz's playful and colorful costume design keeps Frog and Toad looking like humans, but in their signature green and brown tones, while the other characters have a few more hints at their animal nature - ears or a tail or feathers. (One wonders how large of a warehouse CTC has to pull these historical productions out of storage!)

Like a year does as we get older, A Year with Frog and Toad zips by and is over before you know it. Clocking in at well under two hours, I would normally be complaining about the intermission. But kids need breaks, and when you throw cookies literally all over the stage (in one of the most delightfully fun moments of the show), an intermission is necessary. This show is a joy for all ages and will leave you with a warm glow, and maybe an urge to send a letter to a friend, or do an unasked-for favor for someone just to make them happy. The show only ran for two months on Broadway, but that doesn't mean it's not successful. Perhaps it's just too small and sweet of a story for the big stage, but that makes it perfect for CTC's stage.