Arnold Lobel’s amphibian friends are brought to life with verve and heart
by Robert Faires
Whenever the topic of time is broached in front of Toad, which happens repeatedly in the year we observe this peevish amphibian and his more mellow friend Frog, he may be counted on to say testily that his clock is broken. You can set your watch by it.
That Frog suffers these persistent complaints with the patience of a saint, never mentioning that the clock was broken by Toad himself in a fit of temper, is a measure of his devotion to his irascible friend. And for all his flashes of ill humor, Toad has a deep and abiding affection for Frog, for whom he will make sacrifices of his own. And that, dear reader, is the tender heart and generous soul of A Year With Frog and Toad, the musical adapted from the books by Arnold Lobel. It is about a friendship that endures, weathering all seasons.
We meet our heroes in the spring, when Toad, none too eager to be roused from winter hibernation, smashes that unfortunate clock and rolls over for another month’s nap. But that won’t deter Frog, who’s intent on his friend rising to savor the season of new life. Their adventures through spring, summer, and fall are mild by the standards of drama – the two overindulging in a freshly baked batch of cookies, Toad being teased by his woodland neighbors during a swim at the pond, Frog taking some alone time, each secretly raking the other’s yard as an act of kindness, the two flying a kite and sledding down a snowy hill together – but they’re animated by a gentle humor and Robert and Willie Reale’s lively and appealingly old-fashioned musical numbers, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a vaudeville stage or a 1940s radio show. Toad and Frog have the broadly sketched personalities of an old-school vaudeville team, and they’re just as predictable – but therein lies their charm. We know that Toad will always be irritated about or overreact to something and that Frog will always settle him down, and we enjoy seeing that played out again and again, especially when it’s done as appealingly as Ryan Borses and Zach Dailey do it in Summer Stock Austin’s production. Borses captures Lobel’s Toad to a T, his eyes narrowing in skepticism at the suggestion of something playful, his lips launching forth a plaintive “Blaah!” when he’s cranky. He’s neurotic and bossy and yet not abrasively so; Borses nurtures an air of vulnerability about him that leaves you feeling almost as protective of him as Frog does. And as embodied by Dailey, Frog is the picture of the constant friend, unwavering as an oak, with a serenity about him like the surface of a pond on a windless day.
During the year, we see only one serious rift between the pair, with Toad leaving Frog in a huff, but it’s quickly smoothed over as soon as Toad receives a letter mailed by Frog months earlier. (Its protracted delivery by Snail is a running gag – make that creeping gag – in the show, one sold with delightful enthusiasm by Eric Meo.) Frog has expressed again how much he values Toad’s friendship, and by the time Frog arrives at Toad’s for Christmas Eve dinner – can you guess what Frog’s gift to Toad might be? – we have the feeling of a friendship that can’t be shaken and will last these two a lifetime.
That kind of friendship – trustworthy, steadfast, forgiving – may sound as old-fashioned to some as the Reales’ songs, a virtue of times past. But Lobel’s books tell a different story, and the way that director Michael McKelvey and his engaging young cast have realized them here, with sweetness and verve and heart, make it clear: True friendship never goes out of season.