Independent Musical Productions is running the lovely family show, A Year With Frog & Toad on the Lee High School Mainstage through tomorrow. This is a wonderful, evening at the theatre, and given the costuming style, I honestly want to categorize this as a kid-show-for-adults.
The play is based on the four I Can Read “Frog and Toad” books by the late award-winning author and illustrator Arnold Lobel, published in the 70s. The books are a series of short stories about Frog and Toad, best friends through every adventure, and the play is structured this way as well, with vignettes cherry-picked from the books to follow them throughout a year. The common through-line is the value of friendship, and how everyone is special. The play sets this all to music, with a whole series of song-and-dance numbers, performed by characters dressed in costumes only vaguely suggesting the different animals. The target audience for the books is the early elementary age, and for them the lack of “animal costumes” might put a little distance between the story and kids who aren’t familiar with the books. That said, as an adult, I loved the performances, and the stories were “kid safe”. The result is a plot line for children, with songs and dances which evoke an enjoyable 1930s Vaudeville show. When I asked my 5-year-old assistant reviewer what he thought of the play, he basically said he had enjoyed it, but couldn’t give it full approval because of two things–one scene about the animals in the forest laughing at Toad because he looks silly (“that wasn’t very nice of them”), and a mildly scary scene when Frog is telling Toad a ghost story. Neither of those plot elements are the fault of IMP. This is a lovely production, with amazing performances by incredible talents.
IMP has performed this show several times previously, and they had the luxury of dusting off their old sets, costumes, and blocking. There are a few times when scene changes seemed to take longer than absolutely necessary, but it’s a minor detraction from a staging that has clearly served IMP well with this production over the years. Vivienne Atkins, the driving force behind IMP, and originator of much of the blocking and staging, handed most of the directing reins over to Mary Becher and Jenny Stricklin, and the combined creative team did a wonderful job. This is a relaxed, easy evening of entertainment, and it’s not in a rush to shock and amaze with theatre gimmickry. The choreography, by the three directors and Taylor King, is truly impressive, and well performed. Christopher Joel Carter, as the Music Director, Conductor, and pianist, did a very nice job with the songs, and the small band (with bass and percussion) provides perfect accompaniment to the show.
The cast is a truly impressive collection of talent. Jonathan McDowell and Rhea Paseur, as the titular “Frog and Toad”, are wonderful, with very nice singing voices, and comfortably capturing the “buddy” feeling. The trio of primary supporting actors–Jenny Stricklin, Joshua Lance Dixon, and Jenni Wood–are simply amazing. They each play multiple roles, with different characterizations, dance, and singing styles for each. One can only imagine the flurry backstage during all of the costume changes. Joshua Lance Dixon, in particular, is clearly totally comfortable with one-on-one interaction with the audience, and his experience in cabaret shows is evident. Overall, there is a very nice subtlety to the entire cast’s performances, in which they capture the very slight over-acting and over-enunciation important for a kid show, without getting campy. They all found just the right level for a show for kids, without going so far as to pander to them.
The technical elements are superb. The scene design, by Gayle Forry, is fluid and beautiful. With an excellent combination of drops, rolling set pieces, and creative use of the orchestra pit, the various locations are easily represented. The costumes, by Julie Hornstein, are very nice. The common choice with this show is to not have “animal costumes”, but rather dress the actors in very human clothes, in colors and with added touches that suggest the various animals. While it may not be obvious to the kids what animal is represented, it works, and doesn’t put a crimp into the available dance moves. The lighting, by Bryan Comer, does a very nice job of delineating the various acting spaces and scenes. The spotlight operators need to learn how to hold those spots still, but overall the lighting provides great support to the production. David Knies and Zack Lindsay, running the Sound, balance the levels very well, and provide nice sound effect support to the show.
Overall, this is a very nice production. IMP pulls this show out every few years primarily for the school performances, because these books are part of the lower-primary curriculum, but it’s still a neat show for the families. It’s a shame that the one weekend this production is running, happens to be when two other family shows are also onstage in the Huntsville area. There are only a couple performances left of A Year With Frog & Toad this time around, so don’t wait. Ticket information and show times are available at this link.
A (shorter) version of this review will appear on AL.com (hopefully before the show closes tomorrow). Keep an eye on my profile page there.
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