Filichia Features: Spend A Year With Frog and Toad

Filichia Features: Spend A Year With Frog and Toad

Manitoba Theatre Young People's production of A Year With Frog And Toad.

There aren’t too many children's musicals that can advertise “Three Tony nominations, including Best Musical!”

A Year With Frog And Toad can.

Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken, New Jersey has mounted a nice production that runs through Oct. 20. Alas, costume designer Tori DePew did err in the costumes she gave the birds, the first characters we meet. We – especially children -- must immediately know at first glance what they’re supposed to be. But DePew gave them flying helmets with goggles, a choice that makes them appear to be aviators.

Rachel Darby, Mollie Downes and Oren Korenblum flapped their arms to indicate flight, but the gestures could mean that they’re pilots flying in planes. When you produce the show, give your birds some identifiable plumage.

Granted, Andrew Baldwin’s Frog and Matthew Bittner’s Toad aren’t dressed in an immediately recognizable way, but the lyrics stress often enough that Frog and Toad are indeed what these two characters are. Such little touches as a green nightcap and checkered green pants help, but DePew has added an especially nice touch by having her actors wear those socks that have five delineated toes. Lighting designer Matt Fick’s reliance on green gels enhances the amphibians' natural color. A big floppy green hat for Turtle and a strategically filled backpack for Snail each suggest the animals’ respective shells.

Here at Mile Square, even the youngest children love seeing Frog’s attempts to wake up Toad after their long hibernation. These kids may not have much life experience, but they can identify with being forced to rise ‘n’ shine while they’re still sleeping or sleepy. Even a two-week old baby wishes that that the mommy who's awakening him would just go away and leave him in peace.

Two of those three well-deserved Tony nominations went to Willie and Robert Reale: the former for his libretto and lyrics, the latter for his music. In adapting Arnold Lobel’s book, the brothers were careful to retain its all-important theme: how to be a good friend. Frog desperately wants to be one when Toad mournfully tells him that in his entire life, he’s never received a single letter. As a result, Frog, wanting to see his friend happy, writes Toad a letter.

(A letter in our social-media era? This officially makes A Year With Frog And Toad a period piece. As for tweets, the only ones in this show come from the aforementioned birds.)

When Frog asks Snail "Will you do me a favor?" the answer is an immediate “Yes.” How nice that kids can learn that one should be eager and willing to do a kindness for a friend. (Let’s hope that the adults who brought them re-learn it, too.)

The favor that Frog asks is that Snail deliver the letter to Toad. Unfortunately, Snail is not a good choice, for a gastropod mollusc is notorious for its terribly slow rate of speed. This doesn’t occur to Frog, who keeps asking Toad “Any mail today?” That infuriates Toad, who assumes that Frog is just rubbing it in that no one writes him.

Director Karen Babcock blundered in how she handled Snail. After she’d learned that actor Owen Korenblum was an expert tap dancer, she decided to have him rat-tat-tat-tat while singing “I’m the Snail with the Mail." One can understand the temptation, given how fleet of foot Korenblum is, but the whole point of the song and the plot is that Snail is as slow as -- well, a snail. Here Snail seems faster than FedEx morning delivery, for tapping inherently implies speed.

A full year must pass before Snail delivers the letter, but the audience isn’t able to infer that Snail is taking forever to reach his destination. Don’t blame them for not getting the joke.

After Korenblum finally delivers the letter and sings the felicitously named “I’m Coming out of My Shell,” he again taps. But here he has a true, razz-ma-tazz eleven o’clock number, making it the ideal (and only) time he should be dancing. As the old expression goes, “Less is more.”

Friendship doesn’t mean that we can’t occasionally laugh at a buddy. After Toad concedes that "I look funny in a bathing suit," Frog, Turtle, Mouse and Lizard agree with him and giggle. To exacerbate the matter, DePew put Toad in one of the old-fashioned bathing suits in which the top matches the trunks. Bittner looks appropriately embarrassed.

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And yet – after everyone sings no fewer than 15 times that “Toad looks funny in a bathing suit,” Bittner says a simple, direct and anger-free "I know." He implies that we all have our flaws, and if this is his, it isn't such a bad one. Moral of the story: kids, don’t overreact to criticism.

A sub-plot involves Toad’s offhand mention that his clock is broken. Thus, when Christmas arrives, Frog gives Toad a new clock as his present. This plants an important seed in kids' heads: think before you choose a gift. Don’t give your friend a present that you like, but select an item that you know he’d like or -- even better -- needs.

“Cookies” is marvelous song about the joy of making ginger snaps and the even greater joy of eating them. (Such a song offers excellent merchandising opportunities, too.) And what parent wouldn’t want to run on the stage and kiss Mouse who, after he’s offered cookies, says “Oh, no: I don't want to spoil my appetite. I’m having lunch soon.”

On the other hand, at Saturday’s performance, some parents had to be mortified at what Bittner did after he’d tossed a cookie in the air. He opened his mouth wide to catch it, but missed, allowing it to fall to the floor – but then he picked it up and popped it into his mouth. Bittner is obviously an adherent of “The Five-Second Rule,” but some parents must have wished that he adopt a different policy.

Some kids who weren't even alive when Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson opened cooed when they saw a set in which the stockings were hung by the chimney with care. They've already learned that Christmas stockings means small presents which are accompanied by big presents.

The scene leads to a lovely song: "Merry Almost Christmas, Happy Almost New Year.” Even burly daddies can be seen swaying in time to the music. (Note to every cabaret singer who has an early December gig: check out this one.)

Into every life a little fear must fall. Thus, the show also addresses being scared in a few different ways. When Frog doesn’t show up on time for a dinner, Toad’s imagination soars. "Maybe he's being chased by a wolf," Toad worries. This also points out to kids that they can over-imagine things -- and that perhaps they shouldn't.

Toad decides to go searching for Frog and announces “I'm helping my friend. I'm not afraid," before he concedes, "Well, I am, but I'll be brave." Here’s another nice message: it's okay to be scared, but don't let your fear keep you from accomplishing what needs to be done.

But Frog finally arrives, and Toad blatantly says, "I was worried about you." Kids have heard their parents say this so often that the line may no longer make much of an impression. But hearing someone else say it could re-impower the line.

Whether frogs are truly more adventurous than toads is a question for herpetologists to answer, but the Reale brothers certainly think they are. Their Frog is rarin' to sled down that steep hill and is licking his lips at the mere mention of a horror story; Toad, however, more resembles the rest of us in being scared stiff. That thunder and lightning suddenly make their presence known during a dark night also scares Toad. The kids in the audience give laughs of recognition as they remember all the times they’ve been in this situation and have been scared. Many can also relate to both realizing “We’re lost."

Of course it all works out. Although the world has long known the device known as an applause meter, we could use a smile meter, too. That way, we’d all know for sure if the kids at A Year With Frog And Toad at Mile Square out-grinned the adults or vice versa. Can’t say that I know for sure.