The latest offering from Seattle Children's Theatre is A Year With Frog and Toad, a musical about friendship. Based on a series of books from Arnold Lobel, Robert and Willie Reale wrote a musical that encompasses a year in the life of friend Frog (Auston James) and Toad (MJ Sieber), starting as they wake from hibernation (Did you know frogs and toads hibernate? I didn't.) in Spring, frolic at the beach in Summer, rake each other's leaves in Fall, and play in the snow in Winter.
A lovely well-directed production by Rita Giomi, and a fantastic cast, including birds/snails/lizards/moles/squirrels/mice choral singers Christian Duhamel, Jennifer Sue Johnson and Vickielee Wohlbach, bring the accessible musical to life. The small band, music directed by accomplished Mark Rabe, provides solid accompaniment.
Beatifully conceived costumes by Deborah Trout, sound by Chris R. Walker and lights by Geoff Korf support the production. The colorful set, with terrific modular stage elements that slide by pulleys on and off stage, was designed by Edie Whitsett for productions in 2006 and 2010, and updated for this one before she tragically lost her life too quickly from illness.
The songs and dances (choreography by Marianne Roberts) are fun and funny, and the dances even include some juggling, just enough to wow the small children.
This is all what one expects from any SCT production. Their cast is terrific, their technical elements are all excellent, and if there is music, it is also excellently done.
If you have children who have done some early reading learning with Frog and Toad books, then they are looking with anticipation to this musical. But if you come to the musical with no preconceived information or experience, it's a very slight story. So, the issue here is more a lack of substance.
Somehow, even substance-less or slight entertainment seems to be able to find a way to Broadway, and if it's been done on Broadway, the cache it acquires makes it justifiable as a production to regional children's theaters. Frankly, there is an awful lot of work that goes into this production, and the question is - to what effect?
The friendship is a given, in this script. Why a frog and a toad? No explanation for the difference is given, and only hints of differences in temperament are displayed on stage. It's a little bit like a Oscar and Felix "Odd Couple" pairing, though Toad is not really dyspeptic, just mildly less emotionally flexible than Frog.
There is, in Winter, a major EPISODE that causes Toad to become extremely angry with Frog and declare that the friendship is at an end. He gets very scared and justifiably angry. It's a great opportunity to show that bad things sometimes happen and friends can get over even those kinds of upsets.
In fact, the script does allow for the friendship to be healed, Of COURSE it does. That's the whole expectation. But the reason for the reconciliation is a ridiculous one.
Ok. For those who would like it more spelled out: Frog invites Toad on a sled ride, falls off the sled and Toad finds himself scarily sliding out of control and could have gotten hurt. Much earlier in the script, Frog has written Toad a letter (Toad never gets any mail and it makes him sad) but gave the letter to Snail to deliver and Snail takes until after the Winter incident to actually deliver the letter.
If showing friendship reconciliation is good content, and it certainly could be, two friends actually working at overcoming their problems would be a fantastic theatrical demonstration. But this script just has a lovely letter show up and Toad "realizes" that Frog really is his friend.
The script lets us down and calls into question whether this entertainment is worth the high cost of admission, even when the production values are dependably great. I don't usually get personal but I have been wondering if I am asking too much from a production, and whether there is a place for "just" fun. And laughter is a good thing. In this case, while it's a fun production, it's not hugely funny, and seems more like a palatable vehicle for taking in a lesson of some sort.
If a production is a comedy and done "for laughs" and there are lots and lots of jokes, then asking for more lessons might be pedantically looking for substance at every turn. From SCT's recent locally-developed musical, Harold and the Purple Crayon, there isn't a huge amount of substance, however the idea of imagination (with a purple crayon, you can draw and go anywhere you want to imagine) is clearly communicated and a deep enough amount of substance to sustain the entire play. To have a musical focus on friendship is just fine, for starters, but it could be so much more if it also demonstrated problem-solving between friends, giving young children more skills to practice when their real-life friends disappoint, which happens all the time!
Feel free to disagree. I am completely open to more, new or better reasoning.
PICTURED ABOVE: Christian Duhamel, Jenny Sue Johnson, MJ Sieber, Auston James, Vickielee Wohlbach
PHOTO BY: Chris Bennion