The Santa Fe Playhouse closes out 2022 with a thoroughly delightful production of what one might call a contemporary classic musical, A Year With Frog and Toad. Based on the much beloved Frog and Toad series of children’s books by Arthur Lobel, the show details a charmingly sweet series of events from a year in the life of the titular characters—and some of their woodland acquaintances. Back when it premiered on Broadway in 2002, it was one of the first attempts at true children’s theater following a successful off-Broadway run, and though playwright Willie Reale’s original production ran for only 73 performances, it enjoys a well-deserved second life as popular children’s and community theater fodder.
While not entirely in line with the perhaps edgier brand the Playhouse has worked to establish in recent seasons, the theater’s production of A Year With Frog and Toad is a bright and warm hug of a production. Reale’s piece defies expectations tonally, though; it’s gentle and sweet, as are the Frog and Toad books, but also contains clever and playful comedic beats that delighted the younger audience members during a recent performance while also providing ample chuckles for the adults in the crowd. Rest assured, though, parents, that the conflict is generally mild, and is resolved sweetly—a welcome tack for trying times. Further, the playhouse’s production succeeds by never veering into overly saccharine territory. Co-directed by Patrick MacDonald (who also created the production’s engaging choreography) and Emily Rankin, A Year With Frog and Toad proves a fun if unexpected expansion on the typical Playhouse fare.
MacDonald and Rankin’s co-direction is wonderful thanks to clear understanding of how to make sure actors properly use the space; of comedy (particularly physical work), the tone of the piece and places where the expected tone can be riffed upon. As a theater nerd who is fairly familiar with the original score, this reviewer does somewhat wish the playhouse had staged the full production rather than the young audiences edition (so many lovely numbers cut!). Given the high percentage of young audience members, however, this version, which runs about an hour, feels smart, particularly with Eliana Joy O’Brien’s musical direction serving the deceptively complicated score well.
As Frog and Toad respectively, Christian Libonati and Playhouse regular Koppany Pusztai prove excellent. There’s an art to performing children’s theater, a much needed and particular brand of heightened sincerity at which both actors excel. Their singing and dancing chops further the storytelling as well, adding artistic legitimacy for any would-be attendees who might otherwise scoff at attending children’s theater. Pulling what amounts to quadruple duty are the supremely talented Bear Schacht, Karen Ryan and Terri Scullin as various creatures, including a trio of birds with killer harmonies, a snail on a mission and moles; plus turtles, lizards and mice, depending on the scene. It’s heartening to see so many local faces on the playhouse stage, and before the curtain rose, many audience members could even be overheard commenting on who they knew in the cast—and then connecting with each other.
Such connection to one’s community theater spaces is not so common across stage-dom. Like many of the theaters in town, however, the Santa Fe Playhouse is not entirely what one would consider traditional. This is a small, narrow space in which to work, but James W. Johnson’s erudite scenic design makes the most of it with excellent help from lead carpenter and technical director Chavo Budlong, thus striking a palpable blend of realism and whimsy. Lighting design by Max Doolittle is a well-used and significant element of the show’s storytelling, too, and David Stallings’ lively costume design adds visual pep while honoring the Frog and Toad universe’s iconic cottagecore imagery and wardrobe.
For non-kids, A Year With Frog and Toad might not be the first thought that comes to mind for an evening’s entertainment. But for the young and young at heart, this take is a much needed dose of joy at the end of another long year. Check your cynicism at the door, and be prepared for a lovely hour of escapist fun.
A Year with Frog and Toad: 7:30 pm Thursdays, Dec. 15-Saturday, Dec. 17; 2 pm Sunday, Dec. 18. $15-75. Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 East De Vargas, (505) 988-4262