A Year with Frog and Toad, one of three shows currently playing in the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center as part of Summer Stock Austin's 2012 season, may not be that well-known. Though it was nominated for three Tony Awards in 2003, including Best Musical, the show ran for a modest 73 performances and 15 previews. Still, while the show may not be wildly well-known or popular, it still is a fantastic piece. Brought to life by a talented ensemble of young actors, A Year With Frog and Toad is a whimsical child's storybook world come to life, and it will delight both kids and adults.
The episodic, 70 minute long show written by brothers Robert and Willie Reale is based upon the famous and beloved Frog and Toad children's books written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. Here we see the misadventures of best buddies Frog and Toad and their pals, including birds, snails, squirrels, moles, mice, and lizards. Think You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown with amphibians.
Director Michael McKelvey keeps the show blissfully simple. He smartly brings all the action to the downstage area of the Rollins Studio Theatre, in part to cover the sets used for Summer Stock Austin's other two offerings, Legally Blonde and Chess, and partly to make the action more immediate to the audience. He also doesn't treat the material like a children's show. Instead of letting his actors take the characters to over-the-top Hokey Land, an area in which most children's shows stray, his actors give us very grounded performances that are always interesting, funny, and sweet, but never cheesy, forced, or exaggerated. Though the characters are frogs, toads, and birds, this isn't a show about animals. It's a show about friendship.
While the entire ten person cast is excellent, there are a few that deserve special attention and high praise. As Snail, the mailman (yes, ironic isn't it?), Eric Meo is deliciously funny and makes the most of a running gag that would in most actor's hands fall flat and unfunny within minutes. His reprises of "Snail with the Mail" are delightfully silly and fun and got laughs from the entire audience regardless of age.
As a trio of Birds, Jacobi Alvarez, Jenna Carson, and Madison Piner take pleasure in bringing Robert Reale's jazzy score to life. They're all gifted singers and a fine feathered jazz trio. Their moments of direct interaction with the audience in which they invite children onto the stage to teach the birds how to swim and how to hula hoop are adorably cute, and they also get the best of the colorful, endearing, and refreshingly nonliteral costumes by Pam Fletcher-Friday.
And as Frog and Toad, Max Green and Ryan Borses give us an entirely believable friendship that can be liked to Abbott and Costello or more fittingly, Bert and Ernie. Max Green plays Frog as a calm, cool, slightly brainy critter who loves to wax poetic. Ryan Borses plays Toad as a sometimes crotchety and grouchy but always lovable and likeable guy, and he gives possibly the funniest and most developed performance in the show, and he's got quite a voice to go with those comedic chops. Borses easily has a long future as a performer if he wants it.
Supported by fabulous performances and expert direction, A Year With Frog and Toad is an unexpected delight. It is a children's show that children and parents will both enjoy. It's cute, fun, hysterical, and sweet, all the things a family show should be. Though not well-known, this show is a hidden gem.
Photo: Ryan Borses as Toad.
Run time: 70 minutes with no intermission. A Year With Frog and Toad plays the Rollins Studio Theatre now thru August 12. Dates and times vary. For more information, visit www.summerstockaustin.org.