By Leah Gehlsen Morlan
Coralville - Produced by City Circle Acting Company, A Year With Frog and Toad is a darling show suitable for all ages. The production is based on the much-loved books by Arnold Lobel and adapted for the musical stage by Willie and Robert Reale. It comprehensively tells the story of besties Frog and Toad over the course of one year, opening and closing with the end of their winter hibernation and including daily interactions with a host of animal friends.
A Year With Frog and Toad is a run-down of the ultra-simple lives of some super-quiet folks, which translates to a full-length song about Toad looking ridiculous in his bathing suit, entitled "Getta Loada Toad" (a number led by the charming Katherine Boothroyd – cast her in your next show, folks), a song about the merits of spending time by oneself, "Alone," and a song about a delicious batch of sweets, expertly entitled "Cookies" (beautifully-timed at the end of Act I, directly before releasing an audience-full of children to wander about the snack-filled lobby during intermission). Frog is the measured and sweet foil to Toad’s curmudgeon with a soft heart. The slice-of-life, day-to-day elements of this play are further strengthened by the way that Frog and Toad navigate them. This is, essentially, a play about two dudes hanging out and living life. And it’s lovely.
Frog and Toad, played by Joe Mosher and Ken Van Egdon respectively, were delightful and, in what I thought was the most capable (and wonderful) part of each performance, gave a genuine respect to the friendship of their characters. Mosher, particularly, is perfect in this role. He’s either a genuinely kind individual or a talented performer. I suspect it’s a bit of both.
All-around, this cast is a talented bunch and they can all sing their guts out. Boothroyd, Heidi Bibler, Renee Zukin, and Kristina Rutkowski were all cross-cast as several woodland animals, which is the standard for this show. They are the real foundation of the story, providing the narrative outline as well as filling out the cast in everyday interaction and in flashback. This is a small cast, and you need to cast some real talent if you plan for a group of four people to support most of the action. Again, Boothroyd shone, finding the humor (particularly in her scene as “Mother Frog”), nailing the choreography, and throwing herself into her role, which is important in any show, but particularly in those aimed at children. Kids can smell a rat, so it’s a good thing she was simply a positively electric turtle. It was just good fun to watch her. The rest of the woodland creatures were no slouches, and everyone on stage looked like he or she was enjoying the heck out of the experience they were creating.
Brett Borden was expert in his role as Snail. Borden’s performance is, not to put too fine a point on it, perfect. Because our slices of life are what they are — sad, beautiful, bittersweet, joyful, and hilarious — it’s important to cast actors who have some pretty expert comedic timing, as well as an understanding of when to recognize those other elements as well. Borden is one of those actors in this show. His timing is impeccable and his willingness to accept the natural goofiness in his character also allowed him to find the natural, everyday humor without overdoing it.
The set in this show was cleverly designed by the talented Amber Miller. She opted to forego the standard larger-than-life reeds, lily pads, and greenery which accompany this production and, instead, allowed for a little more “human” point of view while maintaining a child’s artistic sensibility (Frog’s and Toad’s homes looked as though they’d been pulled directly from storybook illustrations), and a “boggy” color scheme.
Because the actors were not dressed as animals, which, although rare, has been done with this musical in the past, a human perspective regarding the set design and regarding the costume design were welcome and, frankly, necessary. Jill Swanson’s costuming was artful, complex, and smart. Frog and Toad were outfitted using seasonal colors and several patterns, and, in keeping with the human element of things (and in a really cunning move), Snail’s shell was made using a rolled-up sleeping bag.
Courtney Schmitz’ lighting design was lovely, allowing for the passage of seasons and a navigation of the elements in a deliciously creepy scene wherein Frog tells the scary story of decidedly scary childhood experience.
Finally, the direction, overall, was very good. The transformation of the orchestra pit to a swimming hole and a waving white sheet to a snow hill were shrewd nods to the economic use of space. Obviously there was a cultivation of everyday humor and relationship-building between the cast members which made for some really effective moments on-stage. The pacing of the second half was not quite as swift as I would have liked, though. Some transitions, especially one involving Bibler sweeping leaves, were not speedy or terribly effective. But, the use of platforms upon which the homes of Frog and Toad sat and rotated, allowing for slick scene changes, was fantastic. Overall, the show was skillfully handled.
I will say that, with a couple of exceptions, I expected the choreography to be bit tighter, not in its development, but in its execution. The choreography by Erin Taylor was, in itself, complex and really impressive, but it didn’t always quite pan out on-stage. It’s a small complaint, especially for such a successful performance, but I think it’s worth mentioning.
The Frog and Toad empire is rooted in the idea that, while the tales are targeted at children and the stories are simple, their messages aren’t sophomoric. Which, for our purposes, means that the theatre at work should be aimed at children yet fitting for adults. And it is. Thankfully this show was directed and acted with the capable, gentle hands of some very talented individuals who clearly have an understanding of what it means to put children’s theatre on a professional stage. And while the two aren’t mutually exclusive by any means, it can be hard to strike a balance.
As a personal note, I will say that I took my four-year old son to this show, his first ever, and he was riveted. This is a delightful holiday production and I encourage everyone to check it out. A Year With Frog and Toad runs one more weekend, December 19-21. Tickets and info available here.