Can sweet and charming survive on Broadway?
If so, there may be hope for "A Year with Frog and Toad," an ingratiating little musical from the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, that has now found itself in some pretty grown-up circumstances.
The short, 90-minute show (that's with intermission!), which opened Sunday at the Cort Theatre, is based on several children's books by Arnold Lobel and celebrates the enduring friendship of the title characters. Helping each other seems to be the theme of "Frog and Toad," not a bad idea to instill in a young audience.
Frog (Jay Goede) is serious and practical; Toad (Mark Linn-Baker) is more childish and a bit flighty. It's Frog who is always pulling Toad out of scrapes or getting him to do things that he might not accomplish if he were all alone.
Their lives are chronicled in a series of episodes spread over 12 months, so spring, summer, fall and winter figure prominently. From hibernation to planting flowers to swimming to raking leaves to sledding down a steep hill to spending Christmas Eve together, these pals share a lot of experiences.
Some of the stories are funnier than others, which gives the show a kind of stop-and-go quality, but authors Willie Reale (book and lyrics) and Robert Reale (music) don't let down with their sprightly, altogether catchy score. It's simple without being simplistic, defying listeners not to hum along after only one hearing.
Physically, Goede and Linn-Baker are Mutt-and-Jeff vaudevillians. Linn-Baker is short and stocky, with pop eyes and a nervous energy. The tall, lanky Goede has a debonaire presence, a kind of matinee idol smoothness - not to mention a terrific singing voice - that allows him to effortlessly dispense common sense to the often hapless Toad
Shows written for children are difficult to pull off. Pandering to the kiddies might leave the adults in the audience wishing they were anywhere else. Yet "Frog and Toad” saunters, skips and sings effortlessly between the childlike and a clear-eyed directness that children immediately can grasp.
The two stars are assisted by an energetic trio of performers - Danielle Ferland, Jennifer Gambatese and Frank Vlastnik - who play assorted woodland and feathered creatures. Vlastnik, in particular, scores as a mighty slow snail (is there any other kind?), charged with delivering a letter to Toad, who, it seems, never gets any mail.
The scenery, designed by Adrianne Lobel (daughter of the original author), consists of colorful, pop-up quality cutouts, in keeping with the show's big, bold of comedy and fun.
One consumer note. This is Broadway, so the best orchestra seats in the house are a stiff $90, not including that infamous $1.25 facilities fee. Yet tickets can be had in the balcony for as low as $25. The Cort, one of Broadway's smaller houses, has a warm, intimate feeling. So the balcony locations, while high, puts theatergoers relatively close to the stage. Judging from the audience response at a recent preview performance, the cheerful, golden glow of "A Year With Frog and Toad” can carry right up there.
Normally, unemployment is not the kind of thing a theater reviewer writes about. if our understanding of economic questions were sharper, after all, we wouldn't be theater reviewers.
But it is almost impossible to write about "A Year With Frog and Toad," a musical based on the popular children's books by Arnold Lobel, without referring to a very specific kind of unemployment.
Children's books are often meant to be read to children by their parents. Those of Arnold Lobel, judging by the material here, seem especially well-adapted to this kind of encounter.
What could be a better way for parents to bond with their young ones than through bedtime stories about friendship and kindness?
My concern is that a musical about Frog and Toad will lead to a dramatic increase in bedtime unemployment of Mommy and Daddy. If you can see your stories acted out on Broadway, who needs the road show?
As it happens, the musical, with book and lyrics by Willie Reale and music by his brother Robert, is entirely amiable.
The book follows two friends. Frog and Toad, through a year. Their adventures depend very much on the seasons.
Apparently Frog and Toad were born when a very young Adrianne Lobel explained the difference between the two to her father, who then wrote a book about them.
Adrianne Lobel has grown up to be a very gifted scenic designer and her sets, based on her father's illustrations, are – along with Martin Pakledinaz's costumes -the most enchanting thing about the show. She is also one of the producers.
The lyrics tend to be coy (leaves that are "swirling" rhyme with squirrels that are "squirreling"), but that's to be expected. The music is straightforward and sweet.
Though these stories often have amusing twists, there's nothing really dramatic about them. Nor does the material ever point to anything deeper, which is why my hunch is that the inflections Mommy or Daddy might give to a reading add considerably to the storytelling.
Frog is played by Jay Goede, Toad by Mark Linn-Baker (who happens to be married to Adrianne Lobel). Both bring a delightful joviality and drollness to their parts.
Danielle Ferland, Frank Vlastnik, and Jennifer Gambatese play all the other parts. Vlastnik is especially funny as a running joke, a snail postman. Ferland brings her trademark mock-nastiness to bear.
"Frog and Toad" is essentially children's theater, but since it is on Broadway, you pay adult prices. For $25, you sit way upstairs. To sit in the orchestra, it's $90.
My understanding of economics may be slight, but it is sufficient to know that it's cheaper and cosier to hear the original material in a familiar voice just before you get tucked in.
I was not born yesterday - nor, come to think of it, were my children.
As a result, I approach a Broadway musical aimed at a young audience with the wariness of an archaeologist probing a dig.
Children and their tastes don't change much from generation to generation - witness the tenacious hold still exerted by such icons as Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss.
The late Arnold Lobel was a children's writer without the sensitivity of A.A. Milne or the divine craziness of Dr. Seuss. And, truth be told, he was more than a little twee.
But "A Year With Frog and Toad," a new musical based on his works, cuts down on the twee and loads up on the charm.
Having started life with the Children's Theater Company in Minneapolis, moved off-Broadway for a sold-out run at the New Victory Theater, and opened last night at the Cort Theatre, "Frog and Toad" looks good enough to eat - particularly if you have a sweet tooth.
This musical - with nicely semi-jazzy-kiddy music by Robert Reale and a neat book and very cute lyrics by Willie Reale - is a good deal closer to the generous sensibility of "Sesame Street" than the cookie-cutter mechanics of the Disney machine.
Lobel's daughter, Adrianne, a distinguished set designer, has absolutely excelled here with a soft blaze of childlike prettiness.
Martin Pakledinaz's adorable costumes, which are smartly more anthropomorphic than animal, let the nature of his amphibians, birds, squirrels and a particularly lovable snail glint through amusingly.
Director David Petrarca has staged the piece with just the right pacing and energy, while the dances by Daniel Pelzig prove attractive, particularly when they adopt a gentle vaudeville zip.
Of course, a show like this cannot be much better than its performers permit, and the five actors are all blissfully talented - Frog (Jay Goede), Toad (Mark Linn-Baker), and three others (Danielle Ferland, Jennifer Gambatese and Frank Vlastnik).
The off-handedly sincere Goede and the lovably diffident Linn-Baker (he's the husband of Adrianne Lobel, who is also one of the lead producers, but, hey, don't knock nepotism if it works) achieve wonders, with their convincing depiction of friendship between Frog and Toad that's never mawkish.
So will your children like it? It's worth a try - and at least you'll have a pretty good time, too.
The winds of pollution have never visited the sylvan sanctuary of ''A Year With Frog and Toad,'' the pure-hearted children's musical that opened last night at the Cort Theater. No acrid airs of irony, condescension or frantic salesmanship hover over this gentle, agreeable production, which presents episodes in the friendship of two slime-free amphibians set to song.
In its intentions and execution, ''Frog and Toad'' is as clear as a rural stream in a preindustrial age. The show is speaking specifically to boys and girls who have yet to reach the age of personal cellphones and Avril Lavigne CD's. In other words it is a musical that hopes to tap into a mostly overlooked market: preschool theatergoers with large disposable incomes. Which makes its coming to Broadway an even more daring proposition than Baz Luhrmann's dragging ''La Bohème'' into the mainstream.
''Frog and Toad,'' which is based on Arnold Lobel's beloved series of books, was produced at the Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis, then in the fall moved to New York, where it played to packed houses at the jewel box called the New Victory Theater. Whether its undeniable but fragile charms will translate at a box office where ticket prices reach $90 remains to be seen. Certainly it is the first Broadway show I've attended where audience members are more likely to go for booster seats than for infrared hearing devices.
Still, in these days of artistically uncertain productions created by corporate committee and market surveys, it is gratifying to find a musical that knows exactly what it's doing and that, on its own terms, works perfectly. And I'd far rather spend an airy 90 minutes with the woodland characters of ''Frog and Toad'' than revisit a spangled runaway elephant like ''Thoroughly Modern Millie.'' Would I recommend it to grown-ups unaccompanied by children? Honestly, no.
That said, there is much to extol in ''Frog and Toad,'' which is directed with a light but confident hand by David Petrarca and stars Jay Goede and Mark Linn-Baker in the title roles. Robert Reale's score, which goes from jazz-age jauntiness to step-along cowboy tunes, is eminently hummable. The book and lyrics by Willie Reale, which concern themselves with things like eating cookies and making reluctant kites fly, are witty without talking down to younger audience members or winking at older ones.
The sets by Adrianne Lobel, daughter of the aforementioned Arnold, charmingly evoke the cozy scale and enchanted warmth of her father's illustrations. And Martin Pakledinaz's costumes and Daniel Pelzig's choreography ingeniously summon the show's assortment of animal characters without literal-mindedness.
This approach provides children with plenty of stimulating visual clues, while encouraging them to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. Check out, for example, the fitted paisley coats and feathered hats (nothing as obvious as wings, mind you) of those chic bird creatures, not to mention their jutting-necked walks. Or note the way Mr. Goede (who always wears green socks with his dapper suits) leaps, froglike, just once in the course of a song.
Mr. Linn-Baker, a star of television (''Perfect Strangers'') and Broadway (''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum''), and Mr. Goede work in pleasantly low-key symbiosis, with Mr. Linn-Baker playing a mildly lugubrious Toad to Mr. Goede's perkier Frog. And Danielle Ferland (Red Riding Hood in the original ''Into the Woods''), Jennifer Gambatese and Frank Vlastnik are delightful in all their incarnations as different denizens of the forest.
When adults talk about finding the inner child, they are usually referring to some state of wondering open-mindedness that probably never existed. When I think of myself from my earliest years, I recall someone who liked a reliable, orderly world that left room for the occasional good-natured scare and jokes so silly that grown-ups couldn't really appreciate them. That's exactly the level on which ''Frog and Toad'' operates so successfully.