OREM — Arnold Lobel’s Caldecott Award winning book series about two anthropomorphic characters named Frog and Toad is about enjoying the simple things with a dearly beloved friend. The books highlight quirky differences between the pair of amphibians as they fly kites, clean house, and spend time alone. In 2002 the story was first produced as an adapted musical under the name A Year With Frog and Toad at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, MN. The play followed a rarely seen path from professional children’s theatre to Broadway smash earning Tony Award nominations for creators Robert and Willie Reale. This gem is a rare treasure to see in Utah with just two other productions in the UTBA Archives for the show and SCERA produced a jubilant and bouncy performance on Monday January 29.
Director Kelsey Mariner Thompson truly had the vision for this production in this space. The set on stage right featured a massive spotty red fly amanita mushroom that opened up into a functional house set for the energetic Frog. Stage left featured a more modest collapsible set wagon as a home and porch for the cantankerous Toad. These spaces were beautiful bookends for the space and the play’s cast of five wove through the set to take the audience on a journey of simple pleasures. Thompson utilized the space and performers talents well. I was instantly impressed with the strength of singers in the the five-person cast, and they also brought playful fun to the show. I feel like Thompson helped the cast have good chemistry that was evident from the show’s first moments and carried it through to the end.
Frog was played by Eric Smith whose wide eyed expressions elevated the character of Frog. It’s easy to see Frog as an impulsive extrovert who isn’t bothered by anything. Frog, for example, pushes Toad out of bed early and laughs at Toad’s bathing suit along with the other characters. Frog persistently asks about a letter Toad insists won’t come and is a painful reminder and contrast to Toad’s social awkwardness. Smith brought those elements of the character, but I loved the moments he chose to let Frog work to consider his own feelings. When Toad lashes out towards the plays final scene, Smith appears genuinely hurt, and children nearby gave audible responses to Frog’s sadness. This is the essence of what a TYA production needs to do to be accessible to children.
By the same token, Adam Gowers was a textbook Toad with a few extra wrinkles. Toad is compulsive about his clock being broken and feels anxious about even the simplest deviations from his expectations. This exasperation reaches its peak when Toad finds himself barreling alone down a mountain on a toboggan while Frog is far behind. Gowers navigated an important line in showing genuine anger and frustration without becoming uncomfortable to watch. This served me as an adult audience member well. When Gowers was in this scene as frog, they chose to react forcefully, as a highly stressed amphibian might, but still maintained the animated nature that makes a TYA production engage younger audience members.
A three person ensemble fills in the rest of the characters in the story — squirrels that share cookies, a snail that delivers a letter from Frog to Toad and birds that fly south for the winter. Each of these three sung and danced well, but I was most enjoyed Campbell Gordon’s roles. The physical choices that contrasted each of her characters helped her to stand out — and none more so than the painfully slow “Snail with the Mail”. The bit of a snail going slowly appears several times in the show, but each time Gordon was committed to the deliberate and enthusiastic pace of the snail.
As mentioned before, Scott Sackett’s scenic design was splendid. The scenery was both aesthetically pleasing as well as being functional and dynamic. Toad’s bed folded up into a wall and a half door served as a window through which Frog and Toad could sing with birds and share snacks with the squirrels. I appreciated the balance of projected backgrounds with practical effects where leaves and snow fell from above the stage to show the change of seasons. I think the only nit I have to pick about the technical elements is that there is a song about a horrible and large frog, but the blow up puppet was less impressive than it’s surrounding elements. I have been spoiled with incredible puppets in the last year from Parker Theatre’s productions of the Pumpkin Giant and A Year with Frog and Toad, as well as Tuacahn’s enormous bumble in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s a production element I always feel elevates the theatricality of a show and, in this case, was overshadowed by so many splendid technical pieces.
I was just as thrilled with this piece as my toddler guest was. The play was physically and intellectually funny in ways that appealed to adults and children. It was a nice show had a brisk 61 minute run time (and no intermission) to make it a nice night out with a little one. I’d leap back to SCERA to see this show again right away.