Theater & Arts

Theater review: 'A Year with Frog and Toad'

Where can I sign up? Life is pretty sweet as a frog. And as a toad. That's the case, at least, for the title characters in StageWorks Fresno's "A Year with Frog and Toad," a production at the California Arts Academy's Severance Theatre through Dec. 16 that unfolds with uncommon sweetness and charm.

In the world of this gentle musical, based on the children's books by Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad live in tidy cottages in an idyllic setting, leisurely drink iced tea on picnics in the summer and slurp down hot bowls of soup in front of cozy fireplaces in the winter. They swim when it's hot and sled when it's cold. Even raking leaves seems fun. The neighbors -- a motley crew of snails, mice, birds, turtles and lizards -- are unfailingly polite. (Happily, there don't seem to be any predators.) Most important, Frog and Toad have each other as best friends.

"Frog and Toad," directed with a knowing hand by J. Daniel Herring, is sure to tickle the fancy of young children, but there's also a crisp adult appeal as it works through such themes as taking risks, trust, friendship and patience.

Each of the five cast members is stellar. Brent Moser, as Frog, is charmingly low-key and unfailingly grounded; he's like an amphibian Mr. Rogers. Best of all, he's simply nice. When Toad -- played with manic precision by Joel Abels -- admits he's sad that he's never before received a letter, Frog promptly sets out to write him one. Abels, who also designed the storybook sets, has a grand time blustering it up as the frenzied member of this unlikely duo. In the clever song "Seeds," Toad gives us a wild interpretive dance and then plays the tuba, and in both endeavors Abels exceeds what you'd think each would be worth, laughwise, through sheer comic finesse.

Backing them up is the hard-working and scene-stealing trio of Hayley Galbraith, Amalie Larson Van Vleet and Cody Bianchi, who play all the other animal roles. Thanks to imaginative costumes by Herring and Lisa Schumacher, each creature stands out visually with an assortment of minimalist accoutrements. The "girl birds," for example, are outfitted in jazzy red and lively boas, their fringed flapper dresses swirling as they shake their tail feathers. When Bianchi pops up as a very leisurely Snail -- a recurring character whose appearances conclude with the fun song "Coming Out of My Shell," he's wearing a khaki overcoat with a rolled camp blanket on his back as the shell.

Lighting designer Angela Salinas has some nifty tricks up her sleeve, at one point providing an effect of autumn leaves. Sound designer Walter Teng pipes in the sounds of the pond -- and deftly balances the vocals with the fine live band (a StageWorks trademark).

I saw "A Year with Frog and Toad" last year as a co-production between Shakespeare Santa Cruz and the University of California at Santa Cruz, and this Fresno production is far superior in terms of acting, singing and chemistry. If you have younger kids, especially, you should make every effort to expose them to this highly competent piece of musical theater. And if you're just going as a grown up, never fear -- there's a bit of happy Frog and busy Toad in all of us, I like to think.

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"A Year with Frog and Toad," through Dec. 16, Cal Arts Severance Theatre, 1401 N. Wishon Ave., (559) 289-6622. $23.50, $18.50 students and seniors, $14 children.