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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Amphibian Antics

Theater Reviews

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A goodkids’ play or musical often meets greater approval from parents than from children—perhaps because their appreciation is mingled with a sense of relieved gratitude. First Stage’s production of A Year with Frog and Toad goes further than most in wooing adults as well as their offspring. The musical, like the stories on which it’s based, evokes a nostalgia that’s free of cloying sentiment or honeyed charm.

The characters, basking in their sylvan idyll, are homely creatures whose lives are dictated by the reassuring cycle of seasons. There’s no wicked queen or big bad wolf to sour their simple pleasures; just two friends whose lives are free of altercations.

The musical is comprised of a series of vignettes taking place over the course of a year, beginning and ending in spring. The characters take memorable excursions down snowy slopes, splash around in ponds, rake each other’s yards and drink countless cups of tea.

Brian Gill makes for a delightful frog. His pliant figure lends itself well to the role; his cheeriness appears ingenuous rather than irritating. Toad, played by John Maclay, has a more ticklish temperament—the perfect foil to Frog’s perkiness. In fact he’s almost Beckettian in his improbable anxieties, especially his recurring lament, “I don’t know what time it is—my clock is broken.”

Costume designer Kim Instenes has avoided a literal interpretation of the animals’ identities. Instead, the contours and colors (and often the hairstyles) of the characters are used to good effect in their outfits: Frog dapper and dandified in a green frock coat and Toad cloaked in layered, earthy hues. The birds are particularly well girded in colorful bustles and frills.

The choreography reinforces this figurative approach. There’s a general absence of any pecking, hopping or other effusive displays of animal activity. The snail moves about in slow motion, the birds cock their heads prettily, the mice skitter about in a heightened state of nerves. If anything, their cheerful badinage is rather vaudevillian, and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable note on which to end one season and prepare for another.

Runs through May 18 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater.
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