Everday Wonders: Broadway-Style Magic Meets Children's Theatre in Two Minneapolis Premieres. (Critic's Notebook).(A Year with Frog and Toad)(A Very Old Man)(Theater Review)

By Ritter, Peter | American Theatre, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Everday Wonders: Broadway-Style Magic Meets Children's Theatre in Two Minneapolis Premieres. (Critic's Notebook).(A Year with Frog and Toad)(A Very Old Man)(Theater Review)


Ritter, Peter, American Theatre


Growing up in Brooklyn, scenic designer Adrianne Lobel often despaired at the quality of children's theatre available in New York. "I remember being six years old and embarrassed for the people onstage," Lobel recalls. "But at the same time, I loved adult theatre. I eventually decided that the main thing to keep in mind when doing children's theatre is that there couldn't be any condescension."

Lobel's sensitivity to the intelligence of children's entertainment is something of a legacy: Her father, Arnold Lobel, was the author of, among other works, the canonical Frog and Toad children's books. It was also much in evidence in her designs for the recent Children's Theatre Company production of A Year with Frog and Toad, one of two premieres that found the venerable Minneapolis company stretching its artistic metier. The other CTC debut was A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, based on a tale for children by Gabriel Garcia Marquez from his 1995 collection Leaf Storm and Other Stories.

Instead of simply transposing her father's limpid, whimsical illustrations from page to stage, Lobel created a miniaturized Edwardian habitat for the story's amiable anthropomorphic amphibians. Giant flowers and cattails painted on the backdrop emphasized the lilliputian scale of the play's world, while Tony-winning designer Martin Pakledinaz's costumes--plumed finery for a chorus of migrating birds, for instance--gave it an elegant gilding.

Literally and figuratively, Frog and Toad was musical theatre writ small. Like Lobel's books, the play evolved as a series of short episodes devoted to the joys of cookie-eating and comfortably frayed friendship. Which isn't to say that Frog and Toad was merely kid's stuff. Both the book by Willie Reale and music by Robert Reale referenced Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. In one scene, a snail commissioned with delivering a letter ("I put the 'go' in escargot") turned a westernthemed tune into a perfect parody of Ethel Merman. Likewise, the svelte, dapper Frog (played by Jay Goede) and the bug-eyed, nervous Toad (played by Lobel's husband Mark Linn-Baker) were envisioned as a classic vaudeville odd-couple. In their tap duets, the two recalled nothing so much as Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

With all these echoes, it was no surprise that Frog and Toad itself had Broadway aspirations: Immediately after closing in Minneapolis, the show moved to the New Victory Theatre in New York City, across the street from Disney's perpetually running The Lion King. The first such transfer in GTC's history, the arrangement was surely calculated to augment the company's national profile. In fact, with its creative team (Lobel, Pakledinaz and the director, David Petrarca, are all Broadway veterans) and its smooth professional sheen, Frog and Toad seemed to bid adieu to the Midwest almost before the curtain dropped. Beneath the jazzy frolicking, at least one local critic felt the chill of commercialism.

Still, as Lobel noted, given the challenges of mounting a new children's musical--especially one not bankrolled by Disney--Frog and Toad might never have made it to the stage without CTC. "This is regional theatre like it used to be," Lobel said. "We simply couldn't have done this anywhere else."

RUNNING IN REPERTORY WITH FROG and Toad, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, adapted by Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz, had a no-less-distinguished literary pedigree. Here the source is Nobel Prize--winner Garcia Marquez's much-anthologized short story about a mysterious winged stranger who turns up in a poor seaside village, whereupon he is imprisoned in a chicken coop and exhibited by the villagers as a sideshow freak.

In translating the Columbian writer's fabliau to the stage, CTC faced the considerable challenge of creating a visual equivalent to his inimitable magical realism. …

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