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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Brad Bradley
The current version of The Frogs is a rather different beast from what, by all reports, was seen at Yale long ago. Shevelove's book has been "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane, who also stars as Dionysos, god of the theater (and god of wine as well). Sondheim, now approximately a theater god himself, was persuaded to add a few character songs to the mostly choral material he created for Yale. The swimming pool idea was scrapped, for the frogs are merely chorus members and are not central to the play's action, although Dionysos does embark on a journey to the underworld via the River Styx.
Replacing the pool is rather elaborate and imaginative use of technological gimmickry including swings, eye-popping fire tricks, and sheet-like fabric suspended for acrobatic allure. At times designer Giles Cadle's adaptation of the Vivian Beaumont stage looks like a home for Cirque de Soleil or a Las Vegas super-spectacle.
The first half hour is great fun. Lane's performance starts as one of his best. As his slave Xanthias, Roger Bart is remarkable in being fresh and amusing, never venturing into annoying scene-stealing territory to upset Lane's so-called half-god. The performance begins with the two of them engaging in brisk topical banter. Audience admonishments involving cell phones and candy wrappers are predictable, but are fresh and funny nevertheless.
True to Aristophanes is the generous inclusion of political barbs. Expect a gentler version of Dubya-bashing than Michael Moore's. In an early example, our theatrical demigod inquires, "Have you listened to our leaders? Words seem to fail them, even the simple words." While the contemporary application of satire is welcomed by the local partisan audience, the overall style of the duo's performances owes more to vaudeville teams of nearly a century ago than to current political satire.
The ample thrust stage is very helpful to the repartee shared with the audience before the stage clowns actually assume their Athenian characterizations. Supported by a traditional masked Greek chorus for the joking "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" as well as the equally playful "I Love to Travel," Messrs. Lane and Bart successfully launch the evening onto what appears to be a both giddy and satirical path.
The supporting characters are equally well cast, with Burke Moses as muscleman Herakles and Peter Bartlett as fey but genial host Pluto producing the most fun. Excellent also is John Byner as both gondolier driver and doorman to hell, as are two actors whose sublime diction is appropriately worn on their sleeves, Daniel Davis as G.B. Shaw and Michael Siberry as William Shakespeare. They participate in a verbal competition, styled after a university debate, that takes the cleverness of the play's final third to a considerably more cerebral level.
Dionysos decides to explore the underworld in the guise of the more persuasive Herakles by employing a disguise that is a winking salute to The Lion King. His mission is to bring back to earth an extraordinary writer of the past who, through wit and wisdom, can save mankind from self-destruction. Unfortunately, soon after this business is undertaken, the work reveals a sagging center, apparent even before the intermission.
Prior to the sag, many in the audience may have felt they were attending A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Underworld. But as the tone turns drier, the material becomes more predictable and the language more declamatory. Dionysos's sung romantic lament to "Ariadne" falls quite flat (even the dialogue immediately following the song admits at much), and a title tune offers little more than an excuse for the choreographer side of spectacular stager Susan Stroman to show off her tricks. Worse, hardly any of the song's lyrics are audible through the busy action, even in the best seats.
No doubt many viewers are thinking of these wildly jumping frogs as amphibious variations on Cats. Ending the act is a much more enjoyable theatrical in-joke which involves a giant carnivorous frog and recalls the current revival of Little Shop of Horrors. And because many Sondheim fans will attend The Frogs regardless of press response, they should be on the lookout for the composer's rather charming Act II tribute to My Fair Lady, the musical that probably maintains Shaw's status as a literary guru more than any of his own plays.
The deflation of spirit unfortunately continues even more forcefully in a much too long Act II, set primarily in Hades. Of the several musical items in this act, only "Hades," as ebulliently sung by host Pluto (and "the hellraisers"), fully returns the show to the genuine high spirits of musical comedy, effectively employing Sondheim's quintessential use of internal rhyme, as does the show's opening music. Shakespeare's brief musical turn, "Fear No More"(set to a verse from Cymbeline) also is effective in a very minor key, but much of the rest of the act is tiresome and over-inflated, especially the processional and fanfare bits, which by their third outing wear out their welcome.
In summary, one wishes that the expansion of the work developed at Yale in 1974 had encountered more caution and editing, for the final muddy results weaken the best efforts of all involved. As long as the journey was to the great beyond, perhaps esteemed show doctors like George Abbott or Jerome Robbins should have been sought out along with classic playwrights Shakespeare and Shaw. The absence of such talent at dramaturgical shaping is regrettable.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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