Peggy Sue Dunigan

A Year with Frog and Toad

By - Apr 8th, 2008 02:52 pm
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An afternoon – or an entire year – of life at the pond with Frog and Toad completely mesmerizes. Interpreting the book, lyrics and music of Willie and Robert Reale, First Stage Children’s Theater closes their season in classic style with A Year with Frog and Toad. As these amphibians perform a soft-shoe dance in brown-and-white spectators, this adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s picture books marvelously reveals the meaning of friendship.

From the first moments of song, where Toad, Frog, and Bird chorus sing, “Spring isn’t spring, not without you,” every detail of the production enhances the experience. The enchanting costumes by Kim Instenes — like bird and mouse dresses edged in fringe — impart these humble creatures with an understated grace that captures the imagination. Frog’s pale green silk morning coat with bow tie commands respect, which carries over to every word and action throughout the play, as does Toad’s woven wool vest and knotted tie.

Sarah L. Hunt-Frank’s creative stage design includes a semicircular arched bandshell in grass-green, sheltering the instrumentalists and framing the rotating homes of Frog and Toad in the foreground. Cobblestones beneath the actor’s feet give way to growing gardens, windows in the bandshell hide singing birds, and waves of satin blue cloth, when attached to the outer edges of the stage, allow Frog and Toad to swim through cut-out peepholes, revealing their heads. Every inch of the stage sets a believable scene as the action flows easily through seasons of the year.

Best of all is Brian J. Gill as the quietly dignified Frog to John Maclay’s slightly cantankerous Toad. Recalling traces of Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye, those iconic figures of song and dance, Frog and Toad are already princes waiting to be kissed. As they near perfectly perform their roles with refined class and sincerity, the audience understands that one would surely be lost without the other, as they sing, “You will always be in all my dreams.”

Paul Helm, Courtney Jones and Beth Mulkerron charm in multiple roles supporting this magical duo, ably assisted by the Frog Cast of First Stage child actors. The professional trio of bassist, percussionist and pianist, under the direction of former Milwaukeean James Valcq, plays as though performing for an elite evening soiree.

The simple elegance of this performance underscores the importance of children’s theater while revealing a straightforward message. As Frog and Toad spend a year appreciating daily life and each other’s company, showing care, kindness, and empathy while happily baking cookies or taking tea, the musical uncovers the joys of living. Even the Large and Terrible Frog that comes to life in the second act creates an imposing but non-threatening element in this serene story. Children and adults delight in the animated melodies, meaningful lyrics, sly humor and subtle morals.

The very best children’s theater illuminates real life with truths seen on stage that every age appreciates, so that when the stage lights raise, its themes linger in the audience’s mind with words or moments to remember. As this First Stage production marvelously portrays, anyone would be fortunate to discover the priceless gift of friendship, one ever constant in a changing world, honored in A Year with Frog and Toad. VS

First Stage presents A Year with Frog and Toad at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts until May 18. For information call 414.273.7206 or visit First Stage online.

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