By Gemma Alexander
Everyone knows the Puget Sound area has a vibrant theater culture, so it should come as no surprise that our youth theater is top-notch as well. And yet, somehow, I always am surprised to be treated to a professional quality performance when the cast consists entirely of actors who are too young to vote. This is exactly what happened at Youth Theatre Northwest’s opening performance of A Year with Frog and Toad, which plays through Sunday, Aug. 19 on Mercer Island.
The production uses Robert and Willie Reale’s Tony-nominated musical adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s classic children’s stories. Stitching several Frog and Toad stories together, A Year with Frog and Toad opens in early spring when Frog and Toad wake from hibernation, and follows them through childlike adventures of planting flowers, flying a kite, swimming, raking leaves, and sledding. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the original stories, which helps to effectively capture the gentle and simple atmosphere of the books.
Before the performance, the lobby was filled with people holding flowers for the cast. It felt like a school play where everyone was there in support of friends. But as soon as the opening announcements were finished and the nine-piece orchestra began playing, that homegrown feeling was dispelled.
The songs, blending classic Broadway choruses and tap choreography with topics dear to children’s hearts (cookies!) got both my 8-year-old and 3-year-old bouncing in their seats. Excellent staging and costume design manage to evoke old-fashioned rural life at the same time that they communicate the animal natures of the various characters.
But the real strength of the production is its cast. Without exception, each young actor on stage gave a performance that would stand up alongside most professional regional theaters. With over 50 productions on their combined resume, 17-year-olds Kyle Marshall and Carson Beck turned in flawless performances. Beck, channeling Jimmy Stewart, impressed the young ones in the audience with Toad’s interpretive dance to make the flowers grow; and Marshall practically glowed with Frog’s warts-and-all fondness for Toad. Eliza Jacobson, Kylie Mazure, and Moriah Reibman provided a charming Greek chorus of birds. Liv Coron displayed comedic chops in the role of Snail.
Like Seattle Opera, Youth Theatre Northwest double-casts, so you will see different performers depending on which night you go, but there is no reason to expect less from the other cast.
In what may have been opening-night glitches, the music occasionally overwhelmed the singers, or the actors’ headsets failed to pick up a line. Rarely, a wrong note served as a reminder that the music was live. But these technical imperfections did very little to impair the enjoyment of a well-crafted and highly polished performance. A Year with Frog and Toad may be primarily attended by friends and family, but it is a delight for all ages, and is worthy of the broader theater-going audience.
If you go . . .
When: Thursday, August 16, Saturday, August 18, and Sunday, August 19 at 2 p.m.; Friday, August 17 and Saturday, August 18 at 7 p.m.
Where: Youth Theatre Northwest at 8805 SE 40th St., Mercer Island, WA 98040
Tickets: $15 for Adults; $13 for youth and seniors. Order by phone at 206-232-4145, ext. 100
(Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m.), on weekends, ext. 109. Or purchase tickets online.