‘A Year With Frog and Toad’ at Red Branch Theatre Company

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You know you’re in for a special evening of theater when half the audience arrives in pajamas. But the comfy-cozy opening night of A Year With Frog and Toad at the Red Branch Theatre Company keeps the on-stage action too exciting for anyone to fall asleep.

Gavin Shown (Toad) and Cory Jones (Frog). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
Gavin Shown (Toad) and Cory Jones (Frog). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

This is the successful off-Broadway Theatre for Young Audiences’ musical about little creatures whose big charms carried it all the way to Broadway in 2003. Adapted from the illustrated books by Arnold Lobel, the show benefits from clever, tuneful songs by brothers Robert (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics).

The first thing you will want to know is what is the difference between a frog and a toad? Well, according to Mr. Lobel, Frog is always socially correct and upbeat, though inclined to long periods of introspection on his lily pad. Toad, on the other hand, loves to hibernate and tends to get impatient and fret a great deal when he is awake.

The two amphibians are both neighbors and fast friends, although to hear Frog tell it, “Toad is not so good at sports, and furthermore there are those warts.”

Their year around the old home pond is marked by the arrival of a singing trio of cool birds, returning from their winter migration, and ends as fall departs and the flock is set to head south again.

Much happens in the space of that year. Toad learns to plant flower seeds, then gets upset at having to wait for them to grow. Frog explains to him such concepts as “Soon” — it falls somewhere between “Now” and “Later.”

When Frog learns that Toad has never in his life received a letter, he sits down and writes one, then makes the mistake of depending on Snail to deliver it for him.

Life lessons flow freely around this pond. Toad learns not to be so self-conscious about “looking funny” in his bathing suit, and sees that persistence pays off when it comes to flying a kite.  When Toad and Frog separately set out to rake up each other’s leaves, they show that doing a good deed for others can be more satisfying than even a handful of cookies.

At Red Branch, returning Director Jenny Male stages the action with a good eye and a sure hand for the clutter-free simplicity of children’s theater. She is aided by a good production team and a thoroughly winning cast of five young adult actor-singers. Each performer contributes an assured, easy likability to the evening’s fun.

Returning Red Branch favorites Cory Jones and Gavin Shown make an unbeatable duo as the title characters. As the more reserved and level-headed Frog, Cory Jones  brings the right mix of warmth and humor, plus shines vocally in his solo “Alone” and the big “scary story” set piece, “Shivers.”

As Toad, Gavin Shown is a delight to kids of all ages with his jumpy insecurities and childlike sense of wonder. In the solo “Seeds” and the duet “He’ll Never Know,” this Toad comes close to turning into a real prince.

Caroline Griswold does a wonderful “Snow Ballet” on toe shoes, and brings her grace to the trio of Birds. But it is as Mouse that she presents such an adorably fetching presence that you might well welcome her stirrings in your house this Christmas Eve.

Erin Branigan is another returning Red Branch pro, making a radical transition from the adult sidekick in Triumph of Love to winningly play one of the Lady Birds, a Mole and even Mother Frog. It’s as Turtle, though, that she makes her greatest impression, whether indulging in a bit of “Underwater Ballet” fun or leading the chorus of “Getta Loada Toad.”

For sheer show-stopping enthusiasm, though, no one tops James Carpenter as Snail. Wearing his backback like a shell and sporting a vintage hiking hat, this Snail projects loads of pure cartoon joy as he trods across the stage as though moving through molasses. His several reprises of the song “The Letter” had the opening night crowd roaring with laughter.

The costumes throughout by Camille Petrillo are well conceived, adding little witty character details to the various wetland creatures. The Scenic Design by Heidi Castle-Smith is an illustrator’s dream, keeping things simple and colorful.

The cast of 'A Year with Frog and Toad. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
The cast of ‘A Year with Frog and Toad.’ Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

As always at Red Branch, the live musical accompaniment — directed from his keyboard by Dustin Merrell — is always spot-on and never intrusive.

Don’t be like Snail. Move fast to get tickets for this charming holiday treat.

Running time: 90 minutes and one 15-minute intermission.

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A Year With Frog and Toad plays through December 20, 2014 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at Drama Learning Center-9130-I  Red Branch Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-997-9352, or purchase them online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.