There are valuable existential lessons to be learned from the Reale brothers’ affectionate treatment of Arnold Lobel’s beloved children’s stories about the unconventional friendship of a frog and a toad. But these character-building lessons about the bonds of loyalty between friends are best left to the kiddies in the house. (Show is pitched to the youngest audiences, ages four and up, making it a perfect introduction to the magical world of the theater.) Grownups footing the bill for this instructive entertainment are more likely to get off on the professionalism of David Petrarca’s inventive staging. Cute is cute, but solid production values are money in the bank.
Handsomely mounted and ideally cast, this endearing show delivers what it promises: a year in the life of two amphibian friends who live side by side in neat little houses and look and behave like sweet, rather simple-minded humans.
In this anthropomorphic guise, tall and handsome Jay Goede makes Frog a creature of exquisite manners and refined tastes, with a soft spot for his grumpy, stick-in-the-mud neighbor. “He’s not so good at sports/And of course he’s got those warts,” Frog sings, in a clear and lovely voice that is far from the expected froggy croak. “But Toad, I feel, is vastly underrated/And furthermore, I think, misunderstood.”
Mark Linn-Baker is thoroughly adorable as the rumpled Toad, conveying through his perpetually furrowed brow and timorous manner the gruff vulnerability of one of nature’s truly shy misfits. Watching Toad get up the nerve to go sledding down a steep hill is an extra-special treat. “I’m a terrified toad/On a runaway sled/Soon I am going to be dead,” he sings in this priceless moment of goggle-eyed terror.
The characterizations are simply stated and surely drawn, giving the show the anchor it needs for the amusing, if unstructured and largely undramatic adventures that unfold during the year. Although the book inexplicably neglects to show us exactly how this unlikely friendship between Frog and Toad came about — and what makes their relationship so extraordinary — the individual scenes of the two friends baking cookies and flying kites and telling scary stories on a dark and stormy night are as charming as charming can be.
And even though the articulate lyrics are overly dependent on false rhymes, the vaudeville-styled songs are so bright and bouncy and delivered with such animation, it’s easy to forgive the lack of a through line.
Whatever the story lacks in enchantment is supplied by the storytelling. The song-and-dance narrative is delivered on a music hall stage that never stops moving, giving the show the fluid quality that always delights young eyes and minds. Flat set pieces designed in the whimsical style of the author’s drawings (lovingly recreated by his daughter, Adrianne Lobel) fly on and off as if on wings.
As the seasons roll by, snowflakes fall, autumn leaves float down, spring flowers pop up, and a big, broad sky goes through lightning-fast atmospheric changes. And because the color scheme of sets and lights scrupulously avoids the garish look of most children’s shows, the effect is heart-warming instead of brain-damaging.
The design of Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes is just as subtle — too subtle, in the case of the overly humanized Frog and Toad, whose green and brown spats provide the only clue to their amphibian nature.
Pakledinaz shows more wit with the clever fabric patterns and amusing add-on pieces that convey the special characteristics of the animals who function as a comic Greek Chorus. Danielle Ferland, Jennifer Gambatese, and Frank Vlastnik are astonishingly versatile in these multiple song-and-dance roles, twitching their ears and tails in fetching style, while giving their assorted birds, mice, moles, and squirrels just the right amount of attitude.