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 Cal Arts 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 an important title in the evolution of the genre known as Theatre for Young Audiences. Originally staged by the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, it ended up on Broadway in 2003, where it snagged a Tony nomination for Best Musical. With a cast of five adults, this family-friendly show works on several levels. It’s 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. Unlike many kid-friendly entertainments today that seem shrewdly calculated to appeal to both adults and children — all those DreamWorks and Disney movies that toss in an arch level of subtext to keep the parents from fidgeting — “Frog and Toad’s” appeal to all ages feels more organic.
Each of the five cast members is stellar. (This holiday season boasts two shows with absolutely impeccable casting: this one and the Organic Theater Factory’s “Ordinary Days.”) 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.
Best of all, Abels and Moser boast a sweet chemistry together that seems radiant and genuine as they work their way through Willie Reale’s book and lyrics and Robert Reale’s music.
Backing them up is the hard-working and scene-stealing trio of Hayley Galbraith, Amalie Larsen 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.
Each of the three gets a chance to shine in both big and small ways, from Van Vleet’s brisk Mouse to Bianchi’s fidgety Lizard. Two favorite moments from Galbraith: outfitted in hood and boxing gloves, she gives a “Yo, Adrian” swagger to the character of the Turtle — a big, brash, highlight moment. But watch Galbraith in smaller moments as well — when, say, she shifts in a flash from demure Mama Frog to one-third of a raging frog monster. (Moser’s Frog in that vignette gives us a great contrast as well from his gentle character as he booms his way through the “scary” parts.)
The production is a fine use of the adaptable Severance space. Seating is arranged “tennis court style,” giving a particular intimacy. 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 every 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.
Photo: Front row: Joel Abels, left, and Brent Moser. Back row: Hayley Galbraith, Cody Bianchi, Amalie Larsen Van Vleet. (Photo by Kristen Goehring.)