In the annals of literary friendships, there may be none quite as bedrock as the one between children’s book author Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad. Through thick and thin, through every humiliating bathing suit experience and sledding catastrophe, these platonic pals stick together and support each other no matter what. And let’s be honest: Given Toad’s nebbishness and negativity, their bond is a heart-warming testament to patience and kindness.
In Children’s Theater of Madison’s musical production of “A Year With Frog and Toad,” playing in the Overture Center for the Arts Playhouse through May 21, director Erica Berman differentiates her amphibians with color palettes rather than with masks and webbed feet. Teddy Warren’s Frog sports a green vest and cravat, while Darlington Clark’s Toad prefers a more brownish mélange. Both of them leap and high-step around the stage, dancing and singing their way through all kinds of adventures, each one accompanied by a musical number.
In a move aimed at expanding cast opportunities, the show features two rotating teams of kids that play the birds and squirrels that inhabit Frog and Toad’s forest. In Sunday’s show, #teambird included Emma Dias, Ingrid Ebeling and Maya Williamson Shaffer, all of whom did a great job of harmonizing and setting or stealing scenes.
Speaking of scene stealing, let’s give props to Clark’s wonderfully expressive face. He juts his jaw to convey the range of Toad’s mopey anxieties, and opens his mouth impossibly wide when Toad experiences joy, like when the cookies come out of the oven perfectly or when that pesky kite finally takes flight. In contrast, Warren’s weapon of choice is his brow, which furrows whenever he’s flummoxed by his friend’s grumpy eccentricities. (In other words, often.)
While numbers like “Cookies”— during which baked goods literally rain down—pack a more visual punch, the most important vignette might be “Alone.” When Toad tries to pay Frog a visit, he finds the latter has retreated to a nearby island for some solo time. Toad freaks, certain that Frog is sad and no longer wants to be friends. After nearly drowning in his attempt to find his other half, Toad discovers the opposite is true. “I only came out here to think how I’m happy,” Frog sings. “I love being a frog in the warm sunny summer/but mostly I’m happy because I have you.”
Take that, Hallmark.
Most of the dialogue’s taken straight from Lobel’s story collection “Frog and Toad All Year,” but the musical numbers are the creations of composers Robert and Willie Reale. The songs are entertaining and brisk but not always catchy, sometimes straining rhyme structure to toss in unusual vocab. A song sung by Snail (Flynn Marcus), who’s comically been tabbed to deliver a letter from Frog to Toad, rhymes “envelope” with “antelope.”
Keith Pitts’ set is a total jaw-dropper, too. The detailed and sylvan affair that encompasses both Frog and Toad’s houses includes enough rough-cut greenery to rival a Rainforest Café. The little sprinkles of stage magic drew gasps from the youngish audience—from the sudden appearance of a tulip crop to the center of the stage transforming into a watering hole.
The show runs a brisk 90 minutes. And instead of an intermission, the bird trio conducts the theater equivalent of a seventh-inning stretch. Even so, it’s easy to feel a little exhausted by the time December hits and Frog and Toad are wrangling with late-arriving Christmas presents. Unlike Lobel’s bedtime tome, the show can’t be set down and enjoyed later in bite-sized chunks. That steals some of the thunder from the later stories, conveyed just as the younger set starts shifting restlessly in its seats. But even if that happens, kids are likely to walk out of Overture smiling.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning theater coverage for madisonmagazine.com.