Delightful SSC ‘Frog & Toad’ is exuberant fun for all ages
You don’t have to know the “Frog and Toad” series of children’s books by Arnold Lobel to fall in love with “A Year With Frog and Toad,” the new holiday production from Shakespeare Santa Cruz. In a fleet, satisfying (and very child-friendly) 70 minutes—sans intermission—this lively production keeps kids and adults rapt with jazzy songs, inventive design, good humor, and heart. They might as well tie a giant red ribbon around the UC Santa Cruz Mainstage Theater—this production is such a big, happy holiday gift to the community.
Adapted from Lobel’s books by brothers Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics), “A Year With Frog and Toad” received three Tony nominations on Broadway in 2003. Staging the SSC show is Art Manke, who directed last summer’s rip-roaring “Three Musketeers” in the Festival Glen. Manke tailors the play to the intimacy of the Mainstage, and keeps the action moving briskly, abetted by a hard-working, nine-person acting company who will steal your heart.
The arrival of spring is heralded by three saucy, migrating birds (Casey Caldwell, Annie Ritschel, and Allison Nishimura—excellent singers who pop up in multiple roles throughout the show). Their boisterous chirping wakens the hibernating Frog (Nick Gabriel) and Toad (Mike Ryan), who are such best friends, they even visit each others’ dreams. Patient, loyal Frog is more adventurous, and Toad more of a comic fussbudget, but they do everything together as their year progresses.
Frog helps anxious Toad plant a seed to grow a flower. In summer, they go swimming in the river, but Toad is self-conscious because he “looks funny in a bathing suit.” When Frog obligingly tries to shoo off the other loitering woodland critters, they stick around to watch in the funny, raucous, razzmatazz number “Getta Load a Toad.” The friends sing “Cookies” when Toad does some baking, and he and Frog try—and exuberantly fail—to keep from eating the whole batch.
Autumn is the time for raking leaves; in the wistful “He’ll Never Know”—a soft-shoe number with rakes—Frog and Toad try to do each other a secret favor, with ironic results. It’s also the season for scary stories, with Frog relating a childhood incident when he was briefly separated from his parents. (Caldwell and Ritschel, as the parents, and especially Nishimura as Young Frog, are terrific again in this sequence.) When winter comes, Frog coaxes Toad to go sledding.
In a funny, poignant subplot, Toad laments that he’s never gotten any mail, so Frog writes him a letter. Unfortunately, he entrusts it to Snail (the scene-stealing Chris Waters), whose manful attempts to deliver it recur throughout the show. (“I put the ‘go’ in escargot,” he sings—possibly the only lyric that will go over the heads of some very young children.) It takes him another couple of seasons to get there, but his arrival couldn’t be timelier.
All the material is geared toward things that concern children—looking funny, scary stories, the importance of friends, and cookies. And Manke’s production delivers with wit and imagination. Kudos to B. Modern’s costumes (Frog and Toad’s goggle-eyed caps; cowboy Snail’s blue denim slime trail), and Kate Edmunds’ evocative scenic design. The upstage scrim was lovely with its changing seasons of flowers, fall leaves, and giant snowflake, the simple white sheet of snow, and the effective use of old-time radio sound effects props (wind machine; rattling metal thunder sheet) onstage during the spooky story. Musical director Colin Hannon and his tight seven-man band also appear upstage throughout.
But the show belongs to its stars. As Frog, Gabriel has a lovely singing voice and a warm-hearted sense of fun, maintaining a perfectly froggy stance and gestures in every scene. As Toad, Ryan delivers yet another endearing, uproarious comic performance that can make you weep on a dime. They are enormous fun to watch, so round up a couple of kids and get your tickets right now.
The SSC production, “A Year With Frog and Toad” plays through Dec. 11 at the Mainstage Theater, UCSC. Visit shakespearesantacruz.org for ticket information.