Review: ‘A Year with Frog and Toad’ at Arden Theatre Company

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A smash hit for Arden Theatre Company in 2004 and 2009, A Year with Frog and Toad is back for its third run and it’s guaranteed to be as popular as it was the first two times around! Philadelphia favorites Jeffrey Coon and Ben Dibble return to their lovable roles as the eponymous amphibians, and Director Whit MacLaughlin once again brings his enchanting vision to the stage, with an infectious exuberance that will delight both children and adults.

Jeffrey Coon and Ben Dibble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jeffrey Coon and Ben Dibble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Based on writer/illustrator Arnold Lobel’s series of children’s stories and developed for the theater by his daughter Adrianne Lobel, the smile-inducing show, with high-spirited music by Robert Reale and a charming book and lyrics by his brother Willie Reale, follows the anthropomorphic BFFs through twelve months of activities and antics, hibernation and dreams. Along the way they are visited by an array of neighboring creatures, from birds to rodents to reptiles, who sing, dance, tease, and laugh with them, while learning—and teaching us–some important life lessons about friendship, kindness, and patience.

Under the top-notch music direction of Amanda Morton, the live band–Daniel Perelstein on bass, Mike Reilly on percussion, Spiff Wiegand on guitar and banjo, and Morton, who also conducts, on piano—provides vibrant back-up for the rich tenor voices of Coon and Dibble, and harmonies by supporting cast members Leigha Kato, Elexis Morton, and Steve Pacek, who appear throughout the show in multiple wildlife roles. Highlights include Kato as a light-footed mouse; Kato and Morton as mischievous squirrels messing up piles of freshly raked leaves; and all three as a trio of pecking and flapping birds. Their musical numbers and scenes are rendered clear and audible through Jorge Cousineau’s skillful sound design.

The cast: Ben Dibble and Jeffrey Coon (front) with Steve Pacek, Leigha Kato, and Elexis Morton. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ben Dibble and Jeffrey Coon (front) with Steve Pacek, Leigha Kato, and Elexis Morton. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The ever-adorable Pacek makes some scene-stealing appearances as a determined snail (“I’m Coming Out of My Shell”), who slowly but surely delivers “The Letter” that Coon’s endlessly upbeat Frog wrote to cheer up Dibble’s more crotchety Toad (moving at–you guessed it–a snail’s pace, but noting that “I put the ‘go’ in escargot!”).  Another crowd-pleaser, and a highlight of the production, is Frog and Toad’s boisterous appreciation for freshly baked “Cookies” that leave them in an insatiable state of sugar-high mania! Thanks to them, I, for one, will be screaming “Cookies, cookies, cookies, cookies!” for the foreseeable future.

Reale’s 1920s-jazz-inspired score is visually enhanced by Lee Etzold’s lively choreography, which pays homage to the Charleston, jazz hands, and the soft-shoe. And Richard St. Clair’s clever costumes recall both the fashions of the era–with flapper hats and dresses for the birds (get it?), a barbershop quartet’s straw hat and jacket for Frog, and a full-length vintage-style swimsuit and cap for Toad, who, admittedly, “looks funny in a bathing suit” (in “Getta Load of Toad”)–and the identifiable attributes of the swampland characters (a colorful pointy tail for the lizard, a roll of brown fabric on the snail’s back, and cute little poufs for the mouse’s ears).

Donald Eastman’s set design evokes the perfect pond-side habitat, with weathered wooden steps and platforms that lead down to the water, a trap door that opens to a swimming hole and a night-time fire, and two rustic gabled houses for Frog and Toad that rotate from exterior to interior and change efficiently from bedroom to living room. Thom Weaver’s masterful lighting impresses with a split-second shift from daytime to darkness in Act I and spooky shadows that heighten the effects of Frog’s scary fireside story in Act II (“Shivers”).

Steve Pacek. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Steve Pacek. Photo by Mark Garvin.

No matter what your age, you can’t help but fall in love with A Year with Frog and Toad. Like the cookies, it is a truly irresistible holiday treat for the whole family!

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

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A Year with Frog and Toad plays through Sunday, January 29, 2016, at The Arden Theatre Company – 40 North 2nd Street, on the F. Otto Haas Stage, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.

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