An ode to “Frog & Toad”

I find myself in a bit of a bind. Recently I attended a preview performance of Childsplay’s production of “A Year With Frog and Toad” — featuring a strong ensemble of Childsplay artists including Dwayne Hartford (“Toad”) and D. Scott Withers (“Frog”), pictured above during the show’s final dress rehearsal.

I’ve since developed a nearly uncontrollable urge to tell every parent I see that they need to hop right over to the Tempe Center for the Arts.

The show runs Sept 18 to Oct 16 — Saturdays and Sundays at both 1pm and 4pm — and is recommended for ages four and up. It’s directed by David Saar, Childsplay’s founder and artistic director, whose work has earned both national and international acclaim.

Sing along at home to the "Frog and Toad" Broadway cast recording

I realize, of course, that I can’t simply run through the streets shouting an ode to “Frog and Toad.” So I’m toying with more subtle means of making my point.

Bumper stickers? Buttons? A bullhorn, perhaps? A “Frog and Toad” ballad. A duo of “Frog and Toad” busts. A billboard, perhaps?

But why so smitten?

Childsplay was a sort of first love for me — one of my earliest experiences as a parent with truly exceptional performance art for children and families.

Experiencing their performance of Steven Dietz’s “Still Life With Iris” at the Herberger Theater Center many years ago was akin to holding a newborn baby in all its splendor. Such joy. Such wonder.

I felt that way again many years later when Lizabeth and I went to see David Saar’s “The Yellow Boat,” a play inspired by the life and artistry of his son Benjamin, who was born with hemophilia and died in 1987 of AIDS-related complications following a blood transfusion.

Through the years, I’ve been impressed by a number of Childsplay productions. Their work is timely without being trendy, profound without being preachy.

The original "Frog and Toad" of Lobel's classic stories

So it is with “A Year With Frog and Toad” — based on a series of books written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel.

This Childsplay production features not only Withers and Hartford, but also Yolanda London, Molly Lajoie, Katie McFadzen and Tony Castellanos (who recently toured with “Jesus Christ Superstar” featuring Ted Neely).

There are lessons to be learned about friendship and patience. It’s full of wisdom, but also whimsy. The crowd I saw it with — ages preschool to parent — giggled and squealed with delight throughout the performance.

The music (by Robert Beale, who majored in jazz studies at ASU) is lively and diverse — from bluegrass to jazz. The scenic design (by Edie Whitsett) is beautiful — with bright, popping colors and seamless execution when the time comes to roll, raise, lower or slide. Spring flowers pop up from the ground. Gentle snowflakes fall down from the sky.

“Frog” and “Toad” are best friends who seem to do just about everything together. They swim, sip tea, ride sleds, fly kites, bake cookies (getting a bit carried away in the quality control department). Other critters populate their playtime (perhaps real, perhaps a dream) — including a snail who slowly manages to find a new calling in life.

Both the acting and singing in Childsplay’s “A Year With Frog and Toad” are exceptional, rivaling the quality of many a touring Broadway show I’ve seen through the years. Ditto for the costumes (designed by Karen Ann Ledger) — once again worthy of their own exhibition.

Childsplay’s current production of “A Year With Frog and Toad” also features music direction by Alan Ruch (who wrote words and music for “The Yellow Boat”), choreography by Michael Barnard (now in his 12th season as producing artistic director for Phoenix Theatre) and lighting design by Rick Paulsen (who recently lit Childsplay’s production of “The BFG”).

Sound design is by Christopher Neumeyer, projection design is by Anthony Runfola (who rocks it by adding a techo-friendly touch that’ll appeal to screen-savvy kids) and stage management is by Samantha Reis.

Poster for the Broadway production of "A Year With Frog and Toad"

“A Year With Frog and Toad” enjoyed a brief run on Broadway during 2003, garnering a Tony nomination for “Best Musical” as well as nominations for brothers Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics).

You know, maybe I’m on to something there with the whole Broadway/NYC thing. Anybody know how I can get my ode to Childsplay’s “Frog and Toad” on the giant screen in NYC’s Times Square?

–Lynn

Note: Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe will feature a teaching artist from Childsplay reading from Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” series at their “Explore-a-Story” family event on Sept 25 at 10am. The event is free and includes dramatic play that’ll guide children through “some of Frog and Toad’s best adventures.” Children and teens can enjoy training with the talented artists of Childsplay through various workshops and camps — click here to learn more.

Coming up: Musings on theater award season in Arizona, Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month

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