By Jason and Alisha Hagey
Utah Valley University’s production of A Year with Frog and Toad at the Noorda Theatre in Orem is a pure delight. You enter the Noorda Theater and it feels rather like going to California Adventure and being in “a bug’s land.” At the upstage-center there is a large plant growing, with giant leaves hanging. To the left and right are two gigantic tree stumps. The left one has a slab pulled out of it with a quilt draped over. The other on the right has a quilt laid out on top. Upstage, to the left of the giant plant is an armoire. There are strategically-placed toadstools, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, and large blades of grass in back. Emma Belnap (Scenic Designer) put us on the same level as the characters. The colors are bright and bold and cheerful – and the rest of the show matched this same description.
A Year with Frog and Toad is penned by brothers Robert Reale and Willie Reale and based on characters in the stories of Arnold Lobel. Growing up in Schenectady, New York, Lobel spent most of his second grade sick and kept himself occupied drawing. When he returned to school, he shared his pictures of animals with classmates in the hopes of making friends. From these experiences, Frog and Toad emerged. Later, he went on to continue his education in illustration at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. When describing himself, he did not use the words “author” or “artist” but “daydreamer.” And, in a way, A Year with Frog and Toad pays homage to this daydreaming, beginning with the characters waking from a hibernation dream, after a long winter.
The musical is a series of vignettes told throughout four seasons. “Come along with Frog and Toad as they … plant gardens, swim, rake leaves, go sledding, and learn life lessons along the way. The two best friends celebrate and rejoice in the differences that make them unique and special. Part vaudeville, part make believe. . . all charm, A Year with Frog and Toad tells the story of a friendship that endures throughout the seasons” (Lisa Hall Hagen, Director).
Ultimately, it is a story of enduring friendship and love. As my young daughter said, “families should see it (A Year with Frog and Toad). The play shows how much goodness you can give. It showed the kindness you can give to others.” She went on to talk to us over dinner about how Frog and Toad are “generous to one another. They always help each other. This makes me happy and want to help others, even my sister.”
The two leads – the affable Jordan Briggs (Frog), and the intense and sometimes moody Logan Johnson (Toad), take their characters seriously. Because of this, you become a part of their complexity and friendship. As an adult, I was drawn into their relationship. This play was proof that Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) is not only for those in the 3-8 age bracket. At the end of the evening, the cast came out to the audience. I was struck as I watched one young girl run up to Briggs and embrace him. She held on tight. The actors, and their characterizations, are the kinds of individuals that you just want to hold onto for a long time.
Truly though, even with the lovely performance by both Briggs and Johnson, the three ladies steal the show. Becca Ashton, Kailey Azure Green, and Tianna Maxwell charm and delight as they play multiple roles, help fill in the space for the many quick changes required, and maintain the energy necessary to keep a young audience engaged. These women danced and sang and captivated the audience (in go-go boots no less). The stand out of the evening was Green with her portrayal of Snail. Her character consistently received giggles from children and adults alike. This isn’t to say that everyone wasn’t at that level, but there was something about the rhymes and subdued character that just grabbed us all. The moment the refrains of ‘The Letter’ began, people started laughing and sitting up.
No snail has feet more fleet-ah
Why, I’m practically a cheetah!
I put the ‘go’ in ‘escargot’!
It is silly and delightful. The two other refrains are just as clever with puns about the seasons, about snail-mail, and about speed.
The brilliance behind the show shines brightest in the costume design by Chris Lancaster and Wendy Harbaugh’s hair and makeup designs. Their designs are a throwback to the whimsy of the 1960s, especially referencing the fashions of Twiggy combined with subtle anthropomorphisms. The animals are not literal but a mouse with a giant bow on her head to indicate ears or moles with bell-shaped fur coats and large glasses to give dimension to their characters. For Frog and Toad, patterns in their coats or trousers are indicative of real-life frogs and toads, but without attempting to create accurate recreations of these amphibians. The result is stunning and the visual appeal of Lancaster and Harbaugh’s work deserves high-praise. I would go so far as to say they are what make the show truly fantastic. Lancaster’s designs are some of the best I have seen in a university production. Period.
Choreographer Chantelle Wells does a fantastic job creating exceptional movement – distinctive for each character – while pulling them together through common threads. For instance, there is the jazz drag step that happens throughout the show. The standout is the turtle’s idiosyncratic mod-style dancing. Continuing with the 60s theme, Wells keeps the show moving, shaking, and ‘a gas’ (1960s for ‘awesome’).
Amanda Crabb, the Musical Director, did something absolutely incredible: I understood every word of every song. The musicality throughout was exceptional, but the diction and articulation of the actors in song blew me away. Lisa Hall Hagen, Producer and Director, helped make the show truly cohesive. Everything fit. Everything worked together. From the seemingly simple, yet supportive, lighting design by Aaron Gubler, the larger than life prop design by Alicia Freeman, to Kevin Criman’s sound design as you walked in, you felt like you were near a pond. They were exactly what they needed to be. All the pieces were unified, seamless, and perfect.
A shout out to Melissa Bonilla (Stage Manager) and Erin Bevard and Ariane Tomlinson (Assistant Stage Managers). Without their help, this show could never have been performed so well. With the constant costume changes and the multiplicity of lighting and sound cues, they had to be hyper-focused and ready for the entire length of the show. The musical’s seamlessness would have fallen apart without them.
A Year with Frog and Toad is wonderful. The characters that were favorites from my childhood now danced and sang on stage. This was a faithful adaptation of beloved children’s books. As my older daughter said, “everyone should see the show. It made me happy and will make you happy too.” Come join in the fun, laughter, and friendship, of A Year with Frog and Toad.
UVU Noorda Regional Theatre presents A Year with Frog and Toad by Robert Reale and Willie Reale
UVU Noorda Regional Theatre, 800 West University Parkway, Orem, Utah, 84058
November 3-4, 6, 9-11, 13, 16-18, 2017 6:30 PM
Sensory Friendly Matinee November 18, 2017 2:00 PM
Tickets: $5 (children 3-18), $10 (student), and $14 (general audiences)
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