A Year with Frog and Toad – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts

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Based on a series of children stories by Arnold Lobel and adapted by Willie Reale, as the title suggests, Childplay’s production of A Year with Frog and Toad isn’t one adventure, it’s a collection of gentle, innocent stories written as seasonal events, starting with spring and ending shortly after Christmas once our two heroes have enjoyed Christmas Eve together and prepare for hibernation.

In 2003, the original off-Broadway production broke records by becoming the first professional children’s production to open on Broadway.  Despite some early packed houses, once it officially hit the Great White Way, the rise in ticket prices became cost-prohibitive for many families, and the show closed after just a couple of months.  But the popularity of the piece has endured, and A Year with Frog and Toad continued to charm not only with a national tour but with regional productions, as evidenced by the several Frog and Toad productions here in the valley.  In fact, for Childsplay, this is now the third outing.

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The musical takes its cue from several of the short stories presented as one full year.  There’s a simple, uncomplicated joy to be had when watching Toad (Jon Gentry) attempt to play the tuba to his recently planted garden seeds who are not growing out of the ground fast enough, or when Frog (Dwayne Hartford) kick-starts Toad’s spring by tearing off a page from the calendar to get his amphibious friend out of bed.  Even funnier is Frog’s confidence that the letter he’s written to his best friend and given to Snail (David Jones) for delivery may one day actually arrive in Frog’s mail box.

The strength of Childsplay, as covered before in this column, is its ability to mix classy entertainment while inspiring discussion of its themes.  For Frog and Toad, it’s the theme of friendship.  These characters, as different as they are from each other – Toad can be a little cranky while Frog wants only the best for his friend – have an affection for each other’s company that due to the energy and that overall sense of comic timing and professional delivery of both Gentry and Hartford, the charm feels genuine, illustrated through the things they say and do, even if there’s the occasional conflict.

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Support from Yolanda London, David Jones and Christiann Thijm in a variety of roles is first class throughout.  As the migrating birds, the mischievous squirrels, or the mouse or the turtle, London and Thijm have such irresistibly winning personalities, you wonder how a possible future show with just these characters might develop.  With Jones, his loveable Snail nicely illustrates the secret that always makes a child’s production work as well as it should; it aims an element of humor at the adult.  After he mails his first letter, Snail performs I’m Coming Out of My Shell with all the glitter and pizzaz of a Las Vegas cabaret act.  As he exits, a booming voice announces, “Snail has left the building.”

Technical credits are of Childsplay’s continuous high standard.  Jeff Thompson’s scenic design where elements are either lowered from above or slide on from either side are consistently eye-catching, imaginative and effective; Karen Ann Ledger’s colorful costumes are full of delights and surprises, supported by D. Daniel Hollingshead’s makeup and often amusing hair designs, while Anthony Runfola’s projection adds a dazzling big screen effect of giant, twirling snowflakes as winter approaches.  Molly Lajoie’s choreography based on the original steps of Phoenix Theatre’s Michael Barnard has that same sense of simple but highly effective charm, while Alan Ruch’s musical guidance brings out the best of voices from all the cast, backed by the recorded score from Christopher Neumeyer’s crisp sound.

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Children will be entranced, but there’s something special about this musical for adults to consider.  A Year with Frog and Toad goes beyond simply watching a stage adaptation of a children’s book.  For the child it’s an engaging tale with a little touch of imaginative theatrical magic revolving around a couple of woodland creatures and their seasonal adventures together.  For the adult, it’s akin to reliving an upbringing as reflected in entertainment – you may never have read the books or met either Frog or Toad before, but somehow you feel as though you have; they’re everything you remember from the storytelling characters of your own childhood.

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Childsplay website.

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