A Year With Frog and Toad, book and lyrics by Willie Reale, music by Robert Reale, based on the books by Arnold Lobel. Directed by Lear deBessonet.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Toad and Frog bake cookies; photo provided
James Donegan "coming out of his shell"; photo provided
"I put the go in escargot."
At the theatre festival in Dorset, Vermont something unusual is going on. A musical for families has entered summerís content, sandwiched in between the very adult A. R. Gurney play, The Dining Room, and the next installment in the companyís ongoing George S. Kaufman festival, June Moon, a dangerous comedy about unprincipled adults. For right now, though, there is "A Year With Frog and Toad," the story of twelve months in the relationship between Mr. Frog and Mr. Toad, misfits as friends in their own world, but not without a certain easy relevance to our own. While the writing in this show would have us believe it is for children the content is very much for us, the grownups in the group.
Frog is in touch with his feelings, in touch with his contemporaries of all races, sorts and kinds. Toad is a loner, uncomfortable with that concept but unable to change his ways. He is embarrassed about his body, his looks, his temperament. Frog is self-confident and confidentially limited. When Frog learns that Toad has never received a letter, he resolves to change that and writes him one. In the hands of a snail mail-carrier (Yes, thereís a joke in there) the letter is delivered - next door to Toad - in just under a year. Hence the title.
Hence, actually, the letter. To hear it read aloud is to understand that it breaks the simple bonds of friendship and even brotherhood and takes its author and its reader into another realm, one where relationships stretch to include love and not just respect and simple affection. The authors are treading on dangerous ground here, making acceptable the sentiments, if not the physicality, of love between two males, of two related species or races. For children it opens the door for questions; for adults it opens a whole new window of opportunity to do likewise - to stretch out a hand that is just as needy as it is helpful.
Based on a series of childrenís books by Arnold Lobel and a play by his son-in-law Mark Linn-Baker who originated the role of Toad in New York in this version, the play has a sweet, loosely hung together narrative as the two friends navigate the seasons together, a metaphor for the life-span of a relationship. In spring Toad plants a garden and loses patience with it when nothing grows. Frog coaches him on patience and it pays off. In summer Toad wants to swim, but his body with its unsightly warts and his bathing suit so completely out of style embarrass him, but Frog helps him over this very human set of fears. Together they bake and distribute wonderful cookies.
In autumn the fly a kite together in spite of the taunts of the birds and in winter they celebrate Christmas at Toadís house. Those are the simple structural elements of the show. The ending, as sweet an option as could be, is both inoffensive and emotionally heart-tugging as possible.
Director Lear deBessonet has done a wonderful job pulling all of this together. The twin homes designed by Justin Townsend and the fuddy-duddy clothing designed by Andrea Varga perfectly complement their occupants. Tracy Bersleyís choreography, especially for the trio of birds, is absolutely precious. Using these elements deBessonet has woven a tapestry of dramatic and comic elements into a lifelike representation of human behavior among the animals. Itís a joy to watch.
Darrin Baker is terrific as Toad. His appearance is fastidiously neat. Slightly shorter than Frog, a little bit bald, he still has the youthful resources of a wild creature exploring his own nature. His embarrassment over the quality of his baking was among his most touching moments. In the role of Frog, Jeff Edgerton approached the on-stage charm of a Henry Fonda playing a shy country boy. Both men sing well and play together well vocally.
The chorus who play birds, a snail and a host of other creatures, are led by James Donegan whose snail is a highlight of this show. When he sings "Iím Coming Out of My Shell" with some of the funniest and oddest lyrics you are ever likely to hear - just the use of the word "goo" will make you laugh - he is amazingly forthright and so much in character you can almost forget what youíre watching and actually see a performing slug. The two women in the chorus, Sarah Mugavero and Jessica Blair are almost a match for Donegan, with Blair expressing the more cynical aspects of these woodland creatures perfectly. You may never have another chance to witness the luggage of the birds, by the way, so take the opportunity presented here.
Some of my favorite moments in this show were not actually in the show. The stage floor at the Dorset Theater has been opened to accommodate an orchestra pit for three musicians. Watching children cautiously approach the stage to peer into the hole and then to see them come away with grins on their faces was almost magical. Here was something new, something unexpected for them and for us as well: a realization that a different experience awaited them. If more theaters would do something child enticing once in a while there could be a new audience link created very early in life.
There is a glee about this production, about this show. It takes the realities of slimy critters and replaces them with the slippery emotions of human beings and ultimately creates something that touches us all. I could spend a year with Frog and Toad - oops, I just did. You might like to also.
A Year With Frog and Toad plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival on Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont through August 9. For schedules and ticket information contact the box office at 802-867-5777.