A snail steals the show from the amphibian headliners in International City Theater’s Southern California premiere of a musical based on Arnold Lobel’s beloved “Frog and Toad” books. As played by Broadway’s Jeffrey Landman (“Les Miserables,” “Falsettos”), the snail overshadows frogs, toads, turtle, mice and moles with a blazing star personality that transforms this gentle, child-oriented vehicle into a show for all ages. Otherwise, “A Year With Frog and Toad” is most appropriate for preschoolers: Its practically plotless series of vignettes needs more dramatic underpinning to rise above such definitions as cute, pleasant or sweet.
What little suspense there is stems from the snail, who has been given a letter by Frog (Gary Cearlock) for delivery to Frog’s best friend and neighbor, Toad (Danny Stiles), because Toad has never received any mail. This results in frequent reprises of a lively tune, “The Letter,” a recurring motif so catchy it should be expanded into a full-length showstopper.
Landman also brightens song “A Year With Frog and Toad” as a bird, “Getta Loada Toad” as a lizard and the sensitive “Merry Almost Christmas” as a mole.
Daniel L. Wheeler’s set creates an appealingly stylized animal environment, with two turret-style towers that spin to reveal the bedrooms and kitchens of Frog and Toad. Wheeler’s backdrop — oversized blossoms, bullrushes and toadstools against a green sky — has an endearing simplicity.
The visual scheme is enhanced by Nadine Parkos’ costumes, consisting of suspenders and waistcoats for the two leads, with green tennies for Frog and brown shoes for Toad.
Where the show shines is in its score by Robert Reale (composer) and Willie Reale (lyrics). Most of the numbers have a ’30s vaudevillian flavor, with jazz influences and a dash of down-home country. The standouts include “Getta Loada Toad,” in which Toad laments, “I look funny in a bathing suit” and asks everyone not to watch him when he goes into the water.
Other highlights are “Cookies,” sung by Cearlock and Stiles, and the production’s one dark episode, “Shivers,” where Frog recalls a traumatic childhood confrontation with a “large and terrible frog,” a mammoth monster who eats children and inspires the clever lyric, “I think eating is rude, and I bet that it hurts being chewed.” This creature is represented by a huge curtain — chillingly lit by Jeremy Pivnick — that sprouts threatening eyes and mouth.
Director-choreographer Kay Cole gives the cast lively, swinging steps that don’t tax them beyond their terping abilities. Her direction of group numbers heightens their charm, and she’s careful to keep the interactions honest rather than silly, maintaining respect for preschooler sensibilities.
Willie Reale’s book has little built-in conflict between Frog and Toad because they get along so swimmingly, and even the concluding quarrel is minor and brief. Despite this, Cearlock and Stiles have a low-key, ingratiating sincerity.
Cearlock’s consistent reasonableness contrasts convincingly with Stiles’ slightly grumpier personality, and they present a positive example of friendship for youthful viewers.
This element should insure “Frog and Toad” an enduring status as a touring show parents can comfortably take their kids to see.