A minor tragedy of my childhood is that, obsessive reader though I was, I never discovered the Frog and Toad book series. It wasn't until one of my nephews sent a collection to my son when he was around age 2 that I read Arnold Lobel's stories about the curmudgeonly Toad and optimistic Frog and their epic friendship. It was love at first page for all of us, and now, at age 6, my son has started to read the stories on his own.
So when we heard Olympia Family Theater was producing A Year With Frog and Toad as part of its 10th anniversary season — the third time the theater has produced the musical — we knew we had to go. Bonus: We realized the theater was only two blocks from my son’s all-time favorite thing to do in Olympia, play at Hands On Children's Museum. The only trick would be peeling him away from the museum in time for the show.
The premise of the musical — which was commissioned by Lobel’s daughter Adrianne and first produced in 2002 — is simple: The audience follows Frog and Toad’s adventures and cycles of friendship through four seasons. The spare, colorful set opens on the two buddies waking up after winter hibernation in their two cozy beds (helpfully labeled "F" and "T"). There is an alarm clock next to Toad’s bed, and the set also includes a tree, a mailbox and a second stage level where a four-member chorus of birds (dressed in cat's-eye glasses, floral print dresses and feathery scarves) sings in perfect harmony about the start of spring.
The differences between the two main characters are quickly sketched out. Frog (played with just the right dash of amiability by Harrison Fry) bursts out of bed ready to make spring happen, while Toad (in an appealingly neurotic performance by Kate Ayers) wants to put the pillow over his head and sleep another month. Frog tries to motivate Toad to get out of bed (it doesn’t work) and finally helps him along by secretly flipping the calendar a month. Turns out that’s all Toad needed — a little push from Frog. “That extra month of sleep really makes a difference," he proclaims.
This is the genius of Frog and Toad on page and stage. The audience members, like Frog, often know more than Toad — that it isn’t really May, despite what the calendar says; that Toad can’t make his seeds grow by singing and reciting poetry to them (a later spring scene). Along with Frog, we smile at Toad’s foibles and fears, but, perhaps thinking of our own small anxieties, do so with empathy and recognition.
And so the musical unfolds. In the spring, Toad plants his seeds and learns about patience. In the summer, the friends make cookies but then try to devise a way to stop eating them. The accompanying musical number, “Cookies,” will be an immediate hit with your kids. Fall brings “Shivers,” a highly engaging and beautifully complex number where Frog retells/relives a childhood story about his parents leaving him alone in the woods to confront the fabled Large and Terrible Frog. In a winter musical number titled “Down the Hill,” Frog talks a terrified Toad into going sledding, and they have their first real falling-out after Frog falls off the sled, leaving his friend to careen down solo.
A musical based on a string of familiar stories rather than one driving plot does have some challenges to overcome. For example, one of our favorite stories — “Alone,” where Toad worries about Frog’s need to have alone time — doesn’t translate as well to stage as some of the more exciting or humorous stories.
On the other hand, the musical wisely establishes some plot devices that act as connecting threads. Chief among these is a story about Frog asking Snail to deliver a letter to Toad. Frog entrusts the letter to Snail early in Act One; Snail (in a hilarious breakout performance by Ted Ryle) takes most of the year to deliver it, showing up periodically on stage to sing about how fast he is moving (“I’m the ‘go’ in escargot”). Each appearance adds humor and a little tension ("Will that letter EVER get there?").
Helmed by cofounder and artistic director Jen Ryle (who happens to be the wife of the actor who plays Snail), Olympia Family Theater is an excellent community theater with close-to-professional production values. The set and props include many magical elements that kids will love, such as seeds that grow before your eyes, a seemingly real fire in the fireplace and a real sledding hill. But the most magical element is the music. Accompanied by a live four-piece band, the actors perform the often toe-tapping numbers with talent, harmony and verve — leaving audience members with a fresh way to love Frog and Toad.
Parents should know: age recommendation
The musical should engage any child old enough to sit through the two 45-minute acts. Familiarizing children with the stories before going will obviously increase their interest and engagement; for us, though, it was also fun to rediscover some stories we hadn't read for a while. And don't underestimate its appeal to older kids: A friend and her 17-year-old son accompanied us and the teen loved it as much as us (granted, he had seen the musical 10 years ago and was already a fan).
If you go ...
When: A Year With Frog and Toad plays through June 5 with performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Olympia Family Theater, 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia, WA, 98501
Tickets: $13–$19. Buy online.
Philosophy extra: As ParentMap's sometime philosophy columnist Jana Mohr Lone explores in this article, the Frog and Toad stories can prompt interesting philosophical conversations, such as whether you can be brave and afraid at the same time.