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Many an excruciating moment has been perpetrated on the theatergoing public in the spirit of seasonal cheer—I refer you, if only because a critic misses having something to lob humbugs at, to Ford’s Theatre’s now-retired Christmas Carol musical, that stale bit of annual gingerbread replaced last year by Matt August’s imaginatively classy new staging. I also recall the threat, several years back, of “a new family tradition” from the Signature Theatre, though mercifully the gender-switched Christmas Carol Rag and its antiheroine, Evelyn Scrooge, have yet to stage a local encore. This year, startling though it is to discover it, only the Olney Theatre Center is upholding the cherished holiday tradition of the unbearably twee family-friendly musical, though it must be said that its Oliver! is a classic of the genre.
There was the lingering hope, for dedicated Scrooges, of more widespread seasonal direness: There, like a wreath-shaped target on the Round House Theatre calendar, sat A Year With Frog and Toad, a slender little show derived from a series of children’s books, in which a sort of amphibian Odd Couple weather various adventures, discover the value of lasting friendship, and cap things off with a song titled “Merry Almost Christmas.” A gift, you’d imagine, not just to the critical fraternity but to all practitioners of the misanthropic arts.
Alas, director Nick Olcott brings a deft, light touch to what turns out to be a smilingly witty musical, and the Round House cast, headed by Will Gartshore and Steve Tipton, couldn’t be more ingratiating. The themes are broad and bighearted and hopeful, as you’d expect in a show based on a bunch of picture books, but the delivery’s just wry enough that adults won’t need to fortify themselves with a hit of Christmas punch beforehand. Cookies are baked, leaves raked, snowy hills sledded, and scary stories told—and yes, lessons are learned, about patience and persistence, about self-consciousness and generosity and bravery and whatnot, but they’re not taught so much as joyously, amusingly sold. And in close harmony, too. (The largely big-band-flavored tunes are by Robert Reale; his brother Willie wrote the lyrics, which can be surprisingly snarky.) And there’s a delicious juvenile undercurrent of summer-camp havoc, with much wide-eyed talk of head-bopping and frying pans, unflattering bathing suits and pointing, snickering peers, and scaredy-cat parents who leave their kids alone in the dark woods while they search for a path home.
I tried to hold out, did my best to fortify my inner cynic by counting the innumerable ways in which an irreverent adult could read Frog and Toad’s relationship as crypto-queer, but by the time Olcott & Co. brought on the Large and Terrible Frog—a kid-stalking creature, “terribly large, and largely terrible,” who “eats little bunnies dipped in dirt and likes frog children for dessert”—I’d decided Frog and Toad was the kind of kids’ show I could love. To take a cue from its opening sequence, in fact, I’d like to sing a little ode: There is a Frog, there is a Toad, and they live just up the road—and you’d do well, especially if you’ve got short people in your life, to pay ’em a visit.
You’ll find the amphibians’ swamp a warm and welcoming place: Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.’s set, luminous foliage and translucent dragonfly wings framing a peaceful pond and a pair of cozy little huts for the title pair, takes its cues from a Tiffany lamp, and the whole scene seems to glow with contentment. The creatures populating it are likewise beautifully conceived, from the minute Gartshore’s constitutionally chipper Frog perks up from his winterlong hibernation to dangle his legs, loose and Kermitlike, over the foot of his bed. There are no critter costumes here, thank goodness: Frog and Toad both model a kind of English-country comfy, all tweeds and sweaters in signature greens and browns, and costumer Rosemary Pardee dresses the migratory birds who keep turning up to comment in natty suits finished off with rakishly plumed hats. A backpack, a bedroll, and a squashed forty-niner’s hat are the inspired choices for Bobby Smith’s rubber-faced Snail; Sherri L. Edelen’s bratty Turtle sports a pith helmet and a catcher’s chest pad.
Smith, Edelen, and Erin Driscoll are a hardworking backup ensemble, constantly in motion onstage or quick-changing off-: They play those perpetually transient birds (plus various squirrels, moles, and lizards, each sharply sketched), and they’ve discovered a wonderfully avian set of inflections for vocal and physical mannerisms alike. Ditto for Gartshore, who’s developed an endearingly froggy little hop that keeps insinuating itself; it all blends seamlessly with Michael J. Bobbitt’s understatedly droll choreography, which serves up, among other things, an inspired autumn-leaf-raking soft-shoe for the leads. Snail is the true scene-stealer, though, a slow-motion speed racer who gets a zippy little recurring number involving “a most important letter” that takes most of the show to deliver, and Smith’s blearily determined mien is marvelously sluggish to behold. The show’s one false note is the eleven-o’clock number the Reales feel compelled to give Snail once he’s proved himself through rain and snow, etc.; the character deserves the spotlight, but it puts a mildly awkward bit of punctuation on a plot point that was wrapped up tidily otherwise.
If I haven’t mentioned Tipton’s fretful Toad, it’s because…Oh, Toad, Toad, what shall I say about Toad? Grumpy, pessimistic, ill-tempered when the alarm clock goes off, outwardly certain that every adventure will end in disaster or at least in personal mortification, but sweet and solid underneath it all—he’s a creature calculated to warm the heart of a critic, which, come to think of it, he rather resembles, and Tipton plays him with a loose and winning woefulness. Maybe the spirit of the season is corrupting my judgment, but I loved him instantly, worry warts and all.CP