'Frog and Toad' delivers substance simply
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
If you've ever wondered if you look odd in your bathing suit, or yelled at inanimate objects that refuse to care about your desires for them, The Bay Area Children's Theatre company has your number.
"A Year with Frog and Toad," the musical based on Arnold Lobel's charming stories about two amphibious friends, holds appeal for audiences young and old. The Tony-nominated show opens in Berkeley Nov. 17 to Dec. 14, before leapfrogging to San Ramon (Dec. 21-22), San Francisco (Dec. 28-Jan. 5) and Mill Valley (Jan, 11-19).
Lobel wrote and illustrated the beloved stories about the prickly Toad and his best friend, the lighthearted Frog, in the late 1960s.
On one level, the books are a collection of miniature "nothings;" unadorned tales of flying kites, eating cookies, writing letters. But one step under the deceptively simple narratives, there's real meat: unconditional love, individual vulnerability, the difference between "alone" and "lonely."
The magic of Lobel's books -- and the musical his daughter, Adrianne Lobel commissioned -- is their ability to make a person reflect on the little and the big things in life, then close the book or leave the theater happy to be alive and thinking of cookies.
BACT's production, directed by Lynda Bachman, with Derek Travis Collard as Frog and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Toad, begins in the spring.
Toad plants seeds in a garden as Frog writes a letter to his BFF, handing it to Snail for delivery. Of course, Snail is slower than the United States Postal Service: It takes the entire play for the letter -- and spring's return -- to arrive.
During the yearlong span, the two friends swim, eat wet sandwiches, bake and consume cookies, rake leaves, get scared by stories and argue after sledding mishaps. They fight, worry, make up and forgive.
Bachman says the archetypal characters naturally transfer from page to stage. "Lobel took a clear path when he wrote the books. We can make (Frog and Toad) vivid and construct a well-rounded world around them."
The show contains a cast of small creatures, so Bachman and set designer Serina Sarajama played with scale. Twelve-foot flowers and enormous acorns reflect the script's fanciful tone, making it easier to imagine oneself as a squirrel or mouse.
Like the books, the play is a series of seamless vignettes, with no blackouts and linked by the Dixieland jazz-influenced score.
"I cast the three birds as all women, so they have an Andrews Sisters' sound," Bachman says. (The singing trio became famous in the 1940s for their tight harmonies and complex musical capabilities.)
Bachman, 25, says she read Lobel's books as a child and loved the goofy, nostalgic stories. As a theater director, she values the rich possibilities of exploring the under-layers: the friendship between an optimistic, long-legged Frog and the grumpy, excitable Toad.
Collard (Frog) was a voracious reader whose childhood stories include his being awakened in the morning by his mother amid a mountain of books. On family outings, he admits, he "always had to bring a book and a stuffed animal."
Rehearsing the play, he's come to admire Frog's ability to accept others for who they are.
"Toad is not an ideal character: His flaws are unique. But through it all, that's what Frog loves about him. He accepts and adores (Toad's) flaws," says Collard. "Frog's passion lies in the simplicity of his everyday life. This life adventure is full of memories waiting to be made."
Rollins-Mullens (Toad) calls the production "our traveling barrel of fun" and responds in an email with a delighted, eager tone -- proving that casting against type does occur. He sees Toad's over-thinking tendencies as inherently human.
"The story whisks everyone to a time when we wished we could understand the bees in the park and (what) the family pets were thinking and saying," he says. "I was a pretty nerdy kid and so I've been into the flora and fauna of the world for a long time. I think the thing I really learned is how difficult it can be to play a personality that is so unlike yourself."
Bachman says Rollins-Mullens has a rich voice that brings out Toad's depth--and a geeky side she cherishes in both the character and the actor.
Collard, she says, has "great, slender long legs" and "a gorgeous tenor voice." But what is most likely to have audiences leaping to their feet at the end of the show is Lobel's legacy: stories reminding us the value of friends, having fun, and cookies.