If you only have time to read the first paragraph, let me make this simple: unless you are the bride and groom in a wedding, or have the misfortune of attending your own funeral these next two weekends, move whatever scheduling mountains you must — no matter your age — to attend A Year with Frog and Toad at Columbia Children’s Theatre. Frog and Toad are sacred characters who define our contemporary storytelling selves, not just for children, but for parents and anyone else who later in life relearns the critical import of children’s tales. Arnold Lobel’s kinetic Frog and sourpuss Toad, and their whimsical, parable adventures, have become for millions of readers a canonical definition of storybook friendship — perhaps no less important than Gilgamesh and Enkidu, only with a wee biteen more emphasis on tea and cookies.
Thus, one has to imagine that any children’s theatre approaches the staging of the groundbreaking 2003 musical adaptation of nine priceless vignettes from Lobel’s four Frog and Toad books with the gravitas of a classical company staging King Lear. (For those unaware, the musical, commissioned by Lobel’s daughter, cracked the mainstream Broadway barrier after initial successful runs in Minneapolis and Off-Broadway.) Indeed, this production was enough to draw Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson out from under the lily pads and onto the stage for his first main role since co-founding Columbia Children’s Theatre. This alone is cause for celebration, as Stevenson nails every warty jot and tittle of Toad’s reluctant, crepe-hanger personality. Given the adult audience members’ uniform delight in Stevenson’s performance, one sincerely hopes that he will consider lending his comedic and singing talents to other roles about town in the years to come.
One simply cannot heap enough praise onto the entire cast and crew for possibly pulling off the best children’s show in the history of our famously hot town, and the show I have most enjoyed attending since the legendary production of Ragtime at Workshop nearly a decade ago. I still feel the warmth of theatrical mirth hours after the curtains closed, and I am sincerely jealous that my daughter, Kat (see interview with cast below), will have the opportunity to attend a second performance with her school next week.
Of particular thespian note, one must congratulate veteran children’s theatre actor Lee O. Smith for a frolicking, amphibian performance as Frog that seems to have been plucked from a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road to” film. Also, Elizabeth Stepp again demonstrates requisite talent in anthropomorphic animal roles, in particular as the crocheted-Mohawk Lizard; she brings such animation to her characters that at times one finds her nearly a full time zone ahead of anyone else on stage. Finally, Paul Lindley II and his crisp voice nearly bring the show to a halt — literally — as the postal-laden Snail, who, inch by inch throughout, ties together all of the separate narrative threads.
While the Columbia Children’s Theatre stage itself may be humble (yet deserving of ‘amphi’-theatrical size), the company’s creative team really has outdone itself. Jim Litzinger’s daisy-and-cattail, woodsy stage truly brings the storybook backdrop to life. But the success of any show with animal characters hangs in the creative balance of its costumes, and the team of Stevenson and Donna Harvey seems to have raided with abandon Plato’s World of Forms for an abundance of imaginative ideas, from Frog and Toad’s outrageous argyle socks, to Turtle’s straw hat shell, to the umbrella puppets in the ghost story vignette, “Shivers.” Then there’s Toad’s bathing suit, which out of respect for his metamorphic modesty, I shan’t discuss.
One final shout out is deserving of local face-painting artist, Sarah Dippity, who donated her time on opening night to turning dozens of kiddy faces into a colorful collage of butterflies, Darth Mauls, princesses, and Iron Man masks.
A reviewer knows that he cannot cash the following chip lightly: I really cannot think of a time I have enjoyed myself more in a Columbia theatre. More importantly, I know that my five-year-old daughter and dozens of other children on Friday night felt precisely the same way.
One final word: Go. Or as Snail might put it: Escargot.
~ Arik Bjorn
Kat Bjorn’s Interview with Frog & Toad
KB: Why is it “frog and toad” and not “toad and frog”?
Toad: Alphabetical order. I’m pretty sure “F” comes before “T.”
[cast sings “the alphabet song” in somewhat accurate fashion—amazingly so, in fact, for a group of minimally-educated woodland creatures.]
KB: I picked up a toad once, and it felt lumpy-bumpy. Toad, are you lumpy-bumpy?
Toad: Definitely. Definitely lumpy-bumpy.
KB: How did you come up with your Frog voice and your Toad voice?
Toad: That is my default Cowardly Lion voice.
Frog: I obsessively watched the TV show “Frasier.”
KB: [coughs] What’s it like to be amphibians?
Toad: It’s very convenient when traveling.
Frog: Absolutely. Over land and water. Very handy.
KB: In the story “Cookies,” we don’t know what kind of cookies they are. Are they bug and fly cookies?
Bird: The song is very clear. They are Marvelous Cookies.
Snail: With a touch of honeysuckle nectar, I think.
Lizard: And mealworms. Ooh, yeah. Yum, yum. Mealworms.
KB: That is disgusting. Next question. In the story “Spring,” why did Frog trick Toad with the calendar pages?
Frog: What?! I didn’t trick him!
KB: [coughs; clears throat] Yes you did! And you threw it in the fireplace!
Toad: You tricked me, Frog?! You owe me a calendar. I’m not speaking to you again.
KB: In the story “A Swim,” how does a turtle sound when it laughs? Turtles don’t make sounds!
[cast is stumped. sound of non-equity crickets.]
KB: In the story “The Letter,” why didn’t Frog just deliver the letter himself instead of giving it to Snail?
Toad: We were in desperate need of an 11 o’clock number.
Snail: And I delivered!
KB: [coughs] Last question. Have Frog and Toad known each other since they were tadpoles?
Toad: [points to a portrait on the wall] We’re related, actually. Those are our ancestors in the painting “American Frog-thic.”
Frog: Say, that’s quite the cough you have there, kid.
KB: I know. I have a frog in my throat.
Frog and Toad runs February 8-17 with performances at the following dates and time: Friday, February 8 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, February 9 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Sunday, February 10 at 3 p.m.; Friday, February 15 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; and Sunday, February 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adult and children 3 and up. The Columbia Children’s Theatre is located at the Second Level of Richland Mall, 3400 Forest Drive (corner of Beltline and Forest Drive). Enter the Second Level parking garage walkway and park in Level 2-L for easy access. Call 691.4548 for more information or to reserve tickets for groups of 10 or more. To learn more about Columbia Children’s Theatre , visit http://columbiachildrenstheatre.com/ .