Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
It's fair to say that the Buskirk-Chumley Theater was thoroughly invaded by giddy, laughing adults and their children for Friday night's opening of Cardinal Stage Company's latest production, "A Year With Frog and Toad".
Based on Arnold Lobel's beloved "Frog and Toad" series of children's books, this musical is a cotton-candy sweet story of the friendship between Frog and Toad. Told over the course of a year, the story gives these amphibious chums the chance to plant flowers in the spring, romp in a pond in the summer, rake each other's leaves in the fall, and go sledding in winter.
While Frog sings an "Ode to Toad", and Toad rapturously praises his friend Frog, they do have their inequities, misunderstandings, and fights. But through it all, they remain friends. And that is perhaps Frog and Toad's greatest message. This unlikely pair teaches us that though we all have our strengths and weaknesses, though we are all different, and some of us even have warts and look funny in a bathing suit, we can still be friends. And that's a lesson we grownups often forget.
Hard on the heels of its acclaimed production "Unveiling," Cardinal Stage has once again shown its ability to mindfully produce thought-provoking, visually inventive, yet universally appealing theater. From the minute you enter the lobby, where children younger than 4 are presented with frog beanbags, you can't help but get caught up in the kid-friendly ambiance. And once you enter the already enchanting Buskirk-Chumley theater, Gordon Strain's nuanced and deliciously-textured sets spirit you away.
Later as the play unfolds, Alexandra Morphet's clever costumes manage to keep children giggling and parents laughing at a dizzying array of greens, plaids, stripes and frog/toad-like outfits. Director Randy White has cleverly crafted a world where friends can be kind, but other creatures-- including moles, birds, turtles and snails-- can and do have ulterior motives and very often threaten Frog and Toad's friendship, feelings, and self-esteem. Actors Mike Price (Frog) and Chris Aruffo (Toad) do a fantastic job of portraying their parts, but more important, have chemistry that makes their friendship seem a living, breathing entity all its own-- almost a third character on stage.
Musically, "Frog and Toad" feels a bit soft at times, yet the cast members do a fine job keeping the tempo up and the pace moving. While the show is musically enjoyable, it's clear that priority has been given to casting a very tight ensemble that is capable of simultaneously entertaining the children and imparting just the right measure of seriousness when the moment calls for it.
In the end, Randy White and his team have done a remarkable job creating a "children's" play that is a visual treat, teaches children (and adults) a number of life lessons, and is just plain fun to watch.