ON THE RECORD: A Year with Frog and Toad and The Thing About Men

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18 Apr 2004

This week's column discusses two 2003 musicals, A Year with Frog and Toad and The Thing About Men.

There is a fine line between theatre and children's theatre. A Year with Frog and Toad, which visited the Cort just prior to the 2003 Tony Award cut-off date, straddled that line. Somewhat successfully, but not successfully enough (at a $91.25 top). Even so, the show has more than enough to recommend it. Separate the mostly-charming material from the severe-but-understandable business decisions that spelled doom, and you're left with an audience-friendly property that should prove especially durable on the stock and amateur circuit.

Frog and Toad is based on the series of four children's books by Arnold Lobel. It was devised as a children's theatre piece by the author's daughter Adrienne Lobel, an accomplished set designer. (As the show progressed, Lobel also served as producer. Her husband, Mark-Linn Baker, starred as Toad, a case of nepotism gone good.) After a 2000 workshop at New York Stage and Film (at Vassar College), a full-scale production was mounted in August 2002 at The Children's Theatre of Minneapolis. This was followed by a November engagement at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street, where Frog and Toad (at a $30-something top) was greeted with the sort of reviews that leaves you with no alternative: Broadway or bust. Which, for better or worse, is what happened.

Frog and Toad on Broadway, alas, couldn't quite bear the weight. Robert Reale's music continually breaks out in razzamatazzy, Dixieland-like jaunts that are just right for the proceedings. (Ms. Lobel's liner note tells us that she "envisioned the show as an intimate vaudeville-style musical with a jazzy '30s style sound.") For example, "Getta Loada Toad," which is better known in my house as "Toad looks funny in a bathing suit": The tune is joyous, and it builds into an enjoyably delectable number.

However — and it's a considerable however — a number of the songs (with lyrics by Willie Reale, brother to Robert ) seem to have been pulled, whole, from Arnold Lobel's amphibious episodes. These numbers might work perfectly well for kids; for adults, they drag the show down again and again. For example, a song about "Cookies": Toad makes some delicious cookies, which he shares with his friend Frog. They eat cookies; they stop eating cookies; they eat some more; they stop; they tie up the cookie box with string; they untie the cookie box; they eat some more. And on and on.

This is an episode, an authentic one taken from the original stories; but musical theatre it ain't. This happens as well elsewhere, in song-scenes where Toad sleds down a hill or tries to fly a kite. Compare this to Clark Gesner's "Book Report" from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Child aimed, child-friendly, with child characters (and about Peter Rabbit, good grief!); but plot-laden, adult-savvy and crisp as a fresh-picked carrot. The Brothers Reale, faced with material lifted directly from the source material, in too many cases simply add music and stir.

These several mild numbers are not signs of weakness, mind you, not for children's theatre. They actually serve as a change of pace for younger audience members, with mini-plot elements youngun's can latch onto. But Broadway economics depend on attracting an adult audience; you can pack your matinees with kids, but survival depends on full-price ticket sales on school nights.

I attended an evening preview of Frog and Toad, with an unenthused and obviously papered house, and I found myself alternately lifted by the music and let down by the over-simplicity. I returned near the end of the run with my kids — who adored the thing, and have been eagerly replaying the entertainment for the last ten months. (They absolutely love "The Snail with the Mail" and — so help me — the "Eating Cookies" song.) Would I have enjoyed the show more, on my first visit, had I been accompanied by children? Maybe so. Judging by the reaction of my kids and those of their friends who also saw the show, Frog and Toad seems a natural for school groups.

A CD of the original Children's Theatre production, recorded prior to Broadway, was sold at the Cort (and otherwise received limited distribution). That album has been repackaged — with a colorful, color-filled booklet — and released by ps Classics.

The five-person cast, and the ten-piece orchestra, accentuate the show's friendly nature. Mark Linn-Baker, a familiar Broadway character man, is just right as the lovable-but-gruff Toad. Jay Goede has less comic opportunities as Frog (more or less the straight man of the pair). Danielle Ferland, who as a juvenile actor created roles in two consecutive Sondheim-Lapine musicals (including the memorably crusty Little Red Riding Hood of Into the Woods), has grown into a sharp comedienne. She plays the early bird who catches the worm, and let us all pity the worm. Frank Vlastnik is the Snail with the Mail, deployed as a memorable recurring joke threaded through the show. He also has a moment in the sun, or the spotlight, in "I'm Coming Out of My Shell." (He's a snail, get it?) The third ensemble role is considerably less conspicuous. Kate Reinders, who sings the role on the CD, left the show prior to Broadway to undertake the role of June in the current revival of Gypsy.


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