Appleseed offers the sweet musical A Year with Frog and Toad
Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books are an upside-down version of Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts. We all understand that Lucy, Linus and Snoopy represent adult anxieties and aggressions put into little bodies. What Lobel does is to take childhood fears and concerns, such as being told a kite won’t fly, and expresses them in adult bodies. Well, adults in zoomorphic form.
In Appleseed Productions’ current effort A Year with Frog and Toad, now running at Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., the leads, played respectively by Ben Standford and Daniel Bostick, certainly look like grown-ups. We’re encouraged to pay attention to what’s on their minds, even as we also laugh at it. Without an ounce of condescension, they blend wistful humor with a certain amount of pathos.
Lobel (1933-1987), a prolific children’s author, published four Frog and Toad books, beginning in 1970. They’re “easy readers,” often assigned in the first and second grades. Your fellow citizens under age 35 are likely to know them and speak well of them years later, unlike the Dick-and-Jane stories that date back to the 1930s, and wore out their welcome early.
Lobel’s son-in-law was Mark Linn-Baker, best-known for TV appearances (Perfect Strangers), although he is also devoted to musical theater (Leonard Bernstein’s Candide). With Linn-Baker’s encouragement, the Reale brothers, Robert and Willie, developed the show over three years, opening in New York City in 2003, where it was nominated for a Tony Award. This was unusual for a show nominally aimed at children, just as it is an offbeat choice for an evening Appleseed production, who last season gave us Alfred Uhry’s Parade, a musical about lynching.
The driving force behind A Year with Frog and Toad is unmistakably first-time director Colin Keating, whose bachelor’s and master’s of music degrees are from the Setnor School of Music at Syracuse University. Keating saw the show two years ago in New Hampshire and imported choreographer Taryn Herman for this mounting. Keating also worked with set designer Navroz Dabu to evoke the distinctive watercolors of the books, incidentally done by Lobel’s daughter Adrienne. Together with costumer Meghan Pearson, he has set the action in the time of vaudeville with knickers, suspenders, newsboy flat caps and ill-fitting jackets, the women in Lillie Langtry duds. This not only fits with Toad’s 1910-style bathing suit but the tintype-era musical parodies the Reale brothers have given us.
Frog and Toad are friends, but the character contrasts between them are enough to generate continuing dialogue, if not exactly what you’d call tension. Frog, dressed in green motifs (surprise!), is always cheerier and perkier, ready to get started and take action. More laid-back if not completely taciturn, the brown-clad Toad requires continuing reassurance and encouragement. When spring is proclaimed in the first act, he opts to hibernate for another month. Of the two roles Toad is more fun, which is why Linn-Baker played it in the original production. Toad is crestfallen that he never gets any mail at the hour he hopes for it, 10 a.m., causing Frog to compose a missive to him. As it is entrusted to Snail (Alex Graham), whose slow-motion run stays in place, the only suspense we have is whether Frog’s letter can ever be delivered at all.
In a show where so little happens, the Reale brothers have managed to come up with a wide range of emotional color with surprising combinations of voices. Much of the musical heavy lifting comes from three supporting players who take on four different roles each as birds, turtles, squirrels and so on. In the high-spirited opening number, “A Year with Frog and Toad,” the three “Birds” take the lead. Ebullient Jennifer Pearson turns up again as Turtle in the comic “Get a Load of Toad,” one her best numbers. The slightly more restrained Bri Duger appears as a Mouse and Young Frog, notably in the mock terror number “Shivers.” Alex Graham’s Bird, Lizard, Father Frog and especially his recurring snail put him on stage almost as much as the leads. His big second-act solo number, “Coming Out of My Shell,” steals the scene, as it is supposed to.
Following the show’s title, we move from spring through the delights of summer, the fears of fall, and the reconciliation of Christmas at the end. Serving as his own music director, Keating has gathered a crackerjack seven-player ensemble seen at both stage left and right. With two brass players (including Ryan Benz, the singing lead from last year’s Parade, on trumpet), they can be a bit loud, especially in the first 20 minutes, requiring singers to be miked in such a small space. Willie Reale’s verbal wit (“He’s not good at sports/ And, of course, he’s got those warts”) is matched by brother Robert’s inventive score, with snatches of ragtime and moldy fig jazz.
A highlight of the first act is “Get a Load of Toad,” mocking the brown one’s justified embarrassment at wearing such an uncouth, outdated bathing suit. The thrust undermines the childish dread of appearing foolish in public, but instead of justifying the fear, turns it on its head. As the most experienced player on stage, Daniel Bostick really comes into his own here, his insecurity linked improbably to an unexpected hopefulness. Toad’s cluelessness means he tries to bake cookies without a clock and so can never know when they’re done. To celebrate by scarfing them down, Frog and Toad lead into the triumphant curtain number “Cookies,” the one song, with its throbbing, hypnotic beat, that’s possibly inspired by Sesame Street.
In the second act comes “Shivers,” the biggest production number, prompted by Frog’s traumatic memories from childhood. He had encountered a mammoth monster of a frog who eats children, inspiring the lyric, “I think eating is rude/ And I bet it hurts being chewed.” Not only is this Ben Standford’s best number, ditto for Bri Duger as Young Frog, but everyone contributes, especially choreographer Taryn Herman and lighting designer Tyler Sperrazza. In some ways it is the center of A Year with Frog and Toad with its faux naïf depictions of the terrors of childhood. Much different from the over-theirheads in-jokes of, say, Shrek or Megamind, here we are asked to enjoy the frisson of the child’s imagination.
A shimmering pot of wistful charm, A Year with Frog and Toad has been winning audiences in community theater productions across the continent for the last six years. Locally, only Appleseed Productions would touch it. If all local companies were compared to the Hollywood studios of yore, Appleseed would be United Artists. That means no limiting company brand but a forum where ambitious directors can pursue their own vision.
To accommodate younger audiences, the curtain time has been moved to 7 p.m. for evening performances. On opening night perhaps 10 percent of the audience was comprised of happy youngsters, but the oldsters, clearly not just parents or grandparents, were smiling broadly, too.
This production runs through May 14. See Times Table for information.
Amphibian assembly: Daniel Bostick and Ben Standford in Appleseed’s A Year with Frog and Toad.