Talk about your odd couples: Frog likes his next-door neighbor Toad, even though he's a neurotic wart-covered mess of complaints. And Toad likes Frog every bit as much, even though he's preternaturally cheerful (even in the morning) and also covered in unsightly warts. The two old friends rake one another's leaves and like to chat pleasantly over hot tea and homemade cookies. And no matter how much they fight, they always make up. Story-wise, that's about all there is to A Year With Frog and Toad, the Tony-nominated musical based on Arnold Lobel's beloved series of children's books. There's no big adventure. In fact, there's very little plot at all. There's just Frog, Toad, and all their woodland friends. And that's enough.
The most frustrating aspect of most contemporary adaptations of children's stories is the adaptor's need to insert some level of irony, presumably aimed at the adults in the crowd. In recent years, film adaptations of Dr. Seuss classics like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat have been pumped up with scatological humor and edgy sexual innuendo. Frog and Toad proves how unnecessary all of that is. Being merely charming, completely un-edgy, and rather smart, it manages to delight children and adults alike.
A Year With Frog and Toad plays out like a series of variety-show skits with songs and comedy routines based on the passing seasons. If the plot and dialogue are simplistic, the lyrics are delightfully clever and sophisticated in a way that is reminiscent of dry-wit lyricists from a bygone era or perhaps a recent episode of The Backyardigans.
"Three things you cannot dispute," we're told in the song "Get a Load of Toad." "Bamboo comes from a bamboo shoot, rutabaga comes from a rutabaga root, and Toad looks funny in a bathing suit." And he does.
More than anything else, A Year With Frog and Toad proves that children — even very young ones — can be entertained without technical wizardry. At a recent Saturday matinee, the youngsters sat mesmerized, and during intermission many tried to imitate the anthropomorphic movements of the actors playing animals.
Brian C. Gray and Kevin Todd Murphy are wonderful as Frog and Toad, respectively, but both are nearly eclipsed by an extraordinary chorus led by Amber Snyder and Corey Cochran in a variety of roles.
Did I say that there were no ironic winks and nudges for adults? Because there is one. Overwhelmed by his newfound success as a mailman, Snail (Cochran) strips down to a gold-lame-accented mail carrier's uniform while singing, "I'm coming out — of my shell." Although the gay allusions soared over the kiddies' heads, the joke was out of place. That's not to say it was anything short of fun or fabulous.
Chicago-based director/choreographer Scott Ferguson earned an excellent reputation in Memphis directing camp classics like The Rocky Horror Show and The Mystery of Irma Vep, but his more recent production of the Mark Twain musical Big River was something of a mess. Oddly enough, it's Ferguson's eye for kitsch that makes the completely sincere A Year With Frog and Toad such a winner. Who else might have imagined birds flying south for the winter as mid-20th-century flight attendants or transformed a pair of moles into fur-wearing Russian spies.
Laura E. Jordan's costumes are exemplary, while Tim McMath's set faithfully renders the look and feel of the original children's books.
If there is serious complaint to be registered regarding Frog and Toad, it's with the music direction. And even there, Renee Kemper, who pulls double duty as both musical director and keyboardist, does an excellent job. The problem stems from the fact that she's the show's only musician.
It's a tragedy that when regional theaters stage smaller-scale musicals like A Year with Frog and Toad, they are often faced with the choice of using either a bare-bones band or prerecorded music. It's unrealistic to say so, but neither choice is really acceptable.
Through December 23rd at Circuit Playhouse