the cast of A Year of Frog & Toad (photo: Mark Garvin)

A Year With Frog and Toad

Arden Children’s Theatre
40 N. 2nd St. Philadelphia PA
Through Jan 29

What a perfect winter of collective discontent to spend “A Year With Frog and Toad” those best buddies hanging out in their cabins on the pond in director Whit MacLaughlin’s altogether magical staging at the Arden Theater- in its 3rd revival since 2004, it is perhaps the most beloved show in the stellar Children’s Theatre series. This is a too much fun-for- all-ages musical based on the popular children’s stories by Arnold Lobel, with music by composer Robert Reale and lyricist Willie Reale. And if that’s not enough, its original stars Jeff Coon as always dapper, optimistic Frog and Ben Dibble as charmingly fretful Toad, are also back.

The show in fact is all about loyalty, friendship, diversity and individualism. Arden was full of kids and parents on Dec. 23, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa’s eves, and this audience was not only in a festive mood, but completely captivated by the actors, music and stagecraft of this show.

Dibble and Coon, both fine singers-actors, are also great movers, ready to careen down a snowy bank, or leap around in toady manner or leap frog into a soft shoe for their duet “He’ll Never Know.” They are joined by songbirds, Leigha Kato,Elexis Morton and Steve Pacek, who swoop in to sing about the four seasons, wake up Frog & Toad from their hibernation with some intoxicating three part harmony and this talented trio also double as other forest characters throughout the play.

A favorite with this crowd is a country ditty sung by Pacek as Snail with the tag line “I’m the snail with the mail” pumping his arms furiously, but his feet are still slo-mo, drew peals of laughter as he inches on. Later, Pacek is also a golden voice belter on the showstopper “I’m Coming Out of My Shell.”

“Getta Load of Toad” is a snappy tune about body image sung when everybody finds out that Toad thinks he looks funny in a bathing suit. Turtle (Morton), Lizard (Pacek) and Mouse (Kato) tease him, all in fun, until he gets out of the water and flaunts his body, warts and all.

MacLaughlin knows how to conjure stage magic for kids, with authentic stagecraft that time and again, proves that young audiences give something to young audience that they don’t get anywhere else, especially on tv or at blockbuster movies. Who cares about stale popcorn when Toad is baking and singing about eating as many ‘Cookies, cookies, cookies’ as you want.

The score is a mix of traditional American orchestrals, Charleston swings, and some show-stopping looney tunes and given a rich sound by conductor/pianist Amanda Morton, Mike Reilly (percussion), Dan Perelstein (bass), Spiff Wiegand (banjo/ guitar).

MacLaughlin is a proponent of inventive physical theater that engages kids of all ages. It is especially fluid in tandem with choreographer Lee Ann Eztold dancey character movement. Richard St. Clair’s witty costume designs keep giving the birds in smart cutaways with feathery vests and all us kids were loving Snail’s bedroll and Turtle’s cushy shell. Precision lighting designs by Thom Weaver casting the visual poetry of the seasons on Donald Eastman’s storybook set featuring Frog and Toad’s neighboring cabins on the pond.

How encouraging it is to hear young audience members, inundated with overblown effects and assaulting wall-to-wall media to be completely captivated by real stagecraft and natural singing voices.

After the performance the cast sat onstage and answered questions about the show. When you hear the kids ask questions to the cast, they are interested in how the houses move, how the lights work, how long it takes to rehearse, why the actors moved a certain way portraying different characters and other penetrating questions, this is exciting theater. And who can’t love the fact that the productions are not only affordable for families, its community outreach program arranges for thousands of underprivileged kids will get to experience the Arden’s Children Theatre series for free.