A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD is in enthusiastic revival for the third time.at the Arden, and it’s easy to see why it keeps coming back. My guest reviewers, Claire and Celeste, ages 9 and 6, were enthralled by the musical, and there were plenty of jokes for the adults as well. Everyone left the theater laughing and singing, feeling lucky to have spent time with such good friends.
The simple magic of the books was expertly translated into the folk enchantments of the theater. The set (by Donald Eastman), with rotating houses and trap door, “looks just like the books!” according to my guests. The lighting design (by Thom Weaver) makes a garden grow, lights a campfire, and turns sweet, good-natured Frog (Jeff Coons) into a monster.
The costumes (by Richard St. Clair) cleverly transform the actors into animals, without any horrifying masks, while delivering a sense of the characters’ personality. The well-heeled birds (Elexis Morton, Leigha Kato and Steve Pacek) are like a 1920s vaudeville act, with smart tan suits, pink stockings, and a flash of blue peeking from under their coat “tails”. The hilarious snail who delivers the mail (Pacek) seems inspired by the pony express, with a sleeping roll pack for a shell (“Snails are from Texas” intuits Celeste).
The actors are vibrant, with perfectly timed choreography (by Lee Etzold) and tight harmonies (“It seems like they got a lot of practice” says Claire). Their facial expressions complete the costumes, most notably Toad’s (Ben Dibble). He and Frog dress like normal humans, with the exception of a very embarrassing bathing suit, but Dibble’s faces of joy or confusion or worry are all slightly amphibious somehow. Coons glides through the performance as happy and carefree as Frog himself, obviously having a blast.
The play follows the episodic style of the books, but with a song at the heart of each story. The music (by Robert Reale) is catchy and fun and played with pep by Amanda Morton’s ensemble. The lyrics (William Reale) are sometimes overly repetitive, especially in “Merry Almost Christmas”, but are accessible to the younger audience. The manic song “Cookies”is a smash hit, for obvious reason. The playful “Getta Load of Toad” introduces new animals and eventually teaches a lesson in solidarity. “He’ll Never Know”cleverly uses a raking sound in lieu of a softshoe. There’s a slight lull in Frog’s solo “Alone”, but it presents the idea of needing alone time just to think about life: a good reminder for all ages. Plus, the reverb effect on their voices, as if they’re calling from far out on the lake, filled my co-reviewers’ eyes with wonder.
The show ends as it begins: the birds fly in for spring, Frog and Toad dream of each other in a playful reprise and look forward to another year of life’s adventures together. A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD is a shining edition in the small catalogue of excellent children’s theater, and promises to become a classic itself.
[Arden Theatre Company, F Otto Haas Stage, 40 N 2nd St]. Novermber 24- January 31, 2016; www.ardentheatre.org