Saturday, December 13, 2014

Toad's broken clock doesn't keep 'A Year With Frog and Toad' from being time well spent

Jostling for space amidst the wealth of local holiday entertainment options, Actors Theatre of Indiana has made a tradition of "A Year With Frog and Toad." On Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theater, the company opened its 2014 production of Robert and Willie Reale's musical adaptation of Arnold Lobel's beloved "Frog and Toad" books.

A fixture on ATI's schedule — this is the company's seventh annual presentation of the show — "A Year With Frog and Toad"  runs blithely around the seasonal cycle in the fanciful pond-and-woodland setting of Lobel's whimsical series. The affectionate, uproarious tone of the original books is preserved in both the Reales' Broadway show and this peppy, well-designed production.

Visually, from the inspired costumes  on through the homey ambiance embodied in Bernie Killian's scenic and technical design, "A Year With Frog and Toad" makes every twist and turn of this amphibian friendship a joy to behold. Jonathan Parke's sound design, whose default setting is a blend of evocative critter noises, also encompasses a cornucopia of special effects, none more magnificent than those accompanying Frog's scary story.

Judy Fitzgerald's direction is vivid and calculated to maximize the fun, and the spirited tone of Brent E. Marty's musical direction serves the action and the clever songs well, with a small offstage band providing buoyant accompaniments.

Warts up: Toad bestirs himself to greet spring.
Don Farrell painted the full spectrum of Toad's character with deft brushstrokes of voice and gesture.
The fretful, dense, self-pitying, blubbery moods to which Toad is subject were effectively balanced against his fundamental joie de vivre and sporadic moments of self-confidence and bravado ("Toad to the Rescue").  "I was in absolute peril!" Toad roars reproachfully at Frog after one of their adventures, and in Farrell's portrayal you know the warty hero both means it and rather enjoys saying it.

The more sensible Frog, fully at home in his smooth green skin, was winningly played by Bradley Reynolds. Without smugness, and projecting genuine tenderness toward his problematic friend, Frog as portrayed by Reynolds adeptly fleshed out a delightful tribute to the value of bonding over time and through trials.

After reconnecting post-hibernation with the arrival of spring, Frog and Toad test their bond and simply enjoy each other's company in the midst of an amiable animal kingdom.  This is far from nature red in tooth and claw. Turtle, Mouse and Lizard tease the awkward Toad both in and out of the water. An Andrews-Sisters-like trio of Birds (played by the same versatile actors)  is blithely supercilious.

Frog (Bradley Reynolds) and Toad (Don Farrell) bond over cookies.
But nothing seriously threatens the friendship except a misunderstanding or two. The friends occupy common ground, despite Frog's superior swimming ability. When Toad bakes cookies with songful enthusiasm to end the first act, Frog joins him in blissful overindulgence. Most of the two friends' foes are figments of Toad's hopping imagination. The songs give three-dimensional zest to the friendship, but "A Year With Frog and Toad"'s family audiences are not destined to be burdened by anything weighty.

Tim Hunt, Kelly Krauter, and Kyra Jeanne Kenyon portray the amphibians' neighbors.
Kelly Krauter, Kyra Jeanne Kenyon, and Tim Hunt deserve plaudits for full-throated and -bodied commitment to the show's supporting menagerie.  In addition, Hunt gets a few well-paced solo turns as Snail, whom Frog charges with delivering a letter to Toad that arrives grotesquely tardy — but, as often turns out in cherished children's stories, at just the right time.

And this is just the right time to pay an initial or repeat visit to ATI's "A Year With Frog and Toad." It's not Handel's "Messiah," it's not "The Nutcracker," and it most definitely is not that didactic Victorian favorite, "A Christmas Carol."  But it deserves to leap regularly into the seasonal affections of local audiences.

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