By Nancy R. Elliott
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — An easygoing green frog and a worrywart brown toad define the best kind of friendship in the simple children’s stories of Frog and Toad, written by Arnold Lobel.
The amphibious pair share life and a few of its lessons through the lens of unconditional love in the '70’s era books.
As delightful as Lobel’s children’s readers are, Anderson’s Mainstage Theatre production of “A Year with Frog and Toad” delivers the package with a bow on it.
Based on Lobel’s stories, Robert and Willie Reale wrote the play co-directed for the Mainstage by Bill Malone and Elmore Hammes. The show opens today.
The musical production presents vignettes that tell the story of the two friends throughout a year, thoroughly tuned into nature and the seasons. From flying a kite to raking leaves or baking cookies, each scene is presented with charming simplicity appealing to both children and adults.
The colorful cast of characters, whimsical music and dancing delight as well as amuse, evoking plenty of laughter and smiles.
The two main characters are well cast in Judge Morton and Bill Malone. Morton, as the amiable and imperturbable Frog, sings with an unpretentious charm, if not the strongest vocal capabilities, almost as if we have stumbled into Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.
Bill Malone as Toad approaches life tentatively, clutching his robe because he’s worried how he looks in a bathing suit, or with wide-eyed terror and trembling hands as he sleds down a snowy hill.
While Morton and Malone carry the story, the rest of the cast is essential to the appeal of the production. The bright chorus of birds bring color and sparkle to the stage, as well as strong vocals, choreography and pizzazz. Dressed in vivid blues and reds, with yellow stockings, of course, the birds are reminiscent of '20’s flappers. Spencer Martin, in his bright red zoot suit, takes ownership as a leader in the flock.
Kirby Cunningham as the Snail that wanders through the play while delivering a letter wins the audience over with her comic naiveté. Lines like “I put the ‘go’ in escargot” make for fun songs, but Cunningham rocks it with shining vocals in “I’m Coming Out of My Shell.”
Turtle is a role not just played by Lauren Shaffter, but defined by her – a turtle with attitude. Wearing a bamboo parasol on her back to convey her turtle shell, Shaffter’s strong singing is lively and expressive. Turtle, along with Mouse, played by Kaitlyn Malone, and Thad Fry’s Lizard with his flipping tail, tickle the audience with “Getta Load of Toad.”
Other animals in the cast could not fail to please, from Rosella Weber as the winsome Little Mouse to the moles sporting their over-sized round thick glasses to the bad boy squirrels. You’ve gotta love squirrels with sunglasses and tough guy T-shirts with the sleeves pushed up.
Scott McFadden as the Large and Terrible Frog is fearsome in his billowing cape, but an absolute crowd-pleaser as he almost genteelly skips rope. Silas Morton is the convincing young Frog terrorized by the dangerous monster frog.
The children’s chorus is a collection of bees, sporting black and yellow tutus, and black ants (including one red one) with their pipe cleaner antennae. The large group of children made an excellent complement to the story, whether it was bringing forth the flowers in Toad’s garden or tossing snowballs at him.
The play runs a total of an hour and 45 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission that allows for little legs to get up and get their yeah-yeah’s out. The play is definitely engaging for young children, and the two acts are timed so as not to seriously overtax their limits.
It’s fun to see the little ones in the chorus rapt by the performance on stage, even putting their hands over their ears when they anticipate Toad’s explosive shout at his garden. The musical tunes are supported with uncomplicated piano arrangements, but they still manage to make the wee ones dance in their seats from time to time.
The play’s message is a sweet one, and well-portrayed. Spencer Martin reminds us that though the seasons change, “One thing will never change. Frog and Toad will always be good friends."
Children as well as adults will enjoy this production full of whimsy and simple charms, which moves along with good timing. Some of the upstage speaking roles could do with a little more projection, which may well come along in performance.
The play opens today, running through this weekend and next. Tickets may be reserved by calling the box office at 644-5111 and are available at Mainstage, 124 W. Ninth Street, up to one hour in advance of the show.
Like Nancy Elliott on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @NancyElliott_HB, or call 640-4805.
If you go What: A Year with Frog and Toad Where: Anderson's Mainstage Theatre, 124 W. Ninth Street, Anderson When: July 18, 19, 20, 21, 26 and 27. All performances are at 7:30 p.m., with the exception of July 21's 3 p.m. performance. Tickets: $10 each, available at the box office up to one hour before showtime. Reserve seats by calling the box office at 644-5111. Check the website www.mainstagetheatre.org for more information.