As much an homage to the music of Cole Porter and the hoofing of Bing Crosby as it is to the beloved Arnold Lobel children’s books upon which it’s based, “A Year With Frog and Toad” makes a winning companion to Lobel’s original. With a few months to find its feet before heading to the New Victory Theater in New York, this production already has a jazzy spring in its step.
“A Year With Frog and Toad” is, in many regards, a departure for the Children’s Theater. Co-produced with the writer’s daughter, Adrianne Lobel — who also designed the sets — this adaptation wears its broad commercial aspirations on its sleeve. Sanguine and breezy, without much of a plot to weigh it down, “Frog and Toad” is undeniably geared toward the younger set. Still, eager as this production may be to ingratiate itself, Willie Reale’s book is never cloying, and parents likely will catch allusions to Porter, Sondheim and other great tunesmiths in Robert Reale’s sophisticated, eminently hummable score.
Structured less as a linear story than as a series of set pieces, “Frog and Toad” follows the seasonal routine of its titular amphibians, who are, as we well know, friends. Frog (Jay Goede) is the abler of the two; dressed immaculately in a silken waistcoat, he cuts the figure of a jovial English gentleman. His companion Toad (Mark Linn-Baker), meanwhile, is a bit of a goldbricker, a frumpy nebbish who would rather not be rousted from hibernation. Linn-Baker has the weaker singing voice of the two, but he’s well cast as the Oscar to Goede’s Felix — or, in the case of their tap duet, perhaps Bob Hope to Goede’s dapper Bing Crosby.
Aside from the adventures of Frog and Toad themselves, the major comic business in this adaptation is given over to a snail (Frank Vlastnik) who has been enjoined to deliver a letter. Along with a string of obligatory “snail-mail” jokes, Vlastnik’s periodic, scene-stealing appearances provide some of the production’s musical peaks.
In one number, “I’m Coming Out of My Shell,” for instance, Vlastnik goes from lowly gastropod — “a lot of shell, a little goo” — to big-dreaming Broadway Baby, complete with a spot-on parody of Ethel Merman’s belting style.
Its own Broadway-sized ambitions notwithstanding, “A Year With Frog and Toad” is, both literally and figuratively, a small-scale production. Giant flowers and reeds painted on the scrim in summery shades emphasize the play’s miniaturized world. Elaborate special effects, for which Children’s Theater is rightly known, are likewise kept simple: A bed of flowers sprouts suddenly from the stage; a field mouse pops out of a cupboard; pine trees careen about during Toad’s calamitous sledding outing.
While never quite arresting, the production’s visual scheme is nevertheless effective: Lobel realizes she doesn’t need to strafe children with sight and sound to engage them in her father’s material.
It’s perhaps not the greatest compliment to say “A Year With Frog and Toad” exercises the same restraint throughout. When contrasted with the bright, clamorous and empty standards of children’s entertainment, though, this production’s endearing charm seems no small achievement.