At first glance, “A Year With Frog and Toad” doesn’t seem like Christmas fare. There are no elves, no St. Nick, no ghosts and no grumpy old man learning the reason for the season.
There are just two best friends who care for each other with thoughtful kindness and love even when they are sharing grand adventures and not speaking to each other. By offering the musical based on Arnold Lobel’s popular books, Penobscot Theatre Company and director Nathan Halvorson have gone to the heart of the holiday season without falling back on old standards.
The children who attended Saturday’s opening afternoon performance were as delighted by the music and lyrics of the brothers Robert and Willie Reale as they were by Dominick Varney’s performance as Toad and Hans-Stefan Ducharme’s turn as Frog. As a comedy team, the duo includes a healthy dose of Laurel and Hardy, a dash of odd couple Oscar and Felix and pinch of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
Varney was enchanting as the worrywart Toad while Ducharme was charming as the upbeat and adventurous straight man Frog. These buddies of the amphibian set sang and hoofed their way from spring to winter in a harmonious accord that belied how hard it is to make it look so easy and natural for a frog and toad to burst into song and a soft-shoe just because leaves are falling from the trees.
Rebecca Bailey, Christie Robinson and Ben Layman played an array other animals including birds, moles, frogs, a mouse, a lizard and a snail. All three blended beautiful background harmonies for the two leads, but Layman’s turn as a snail and a large and terrible frog stood out.
Lex Liang’s sets along with Jonathan Spencer’s lighting created a stunningly beautiful pond that holds the promise of a summer Mainers barely experienced this year. Even the snow that covered them in the shows’ final sequence couldn’t diminish the glory of the water lilies.
Liang’s costumes that clad the animals in human clothing from the Edwardian era gave a civilized air to all the creatures.
Halvorson did not condescend to his young audience. Neither did he throw parents and grandparents a bone of adult material with a wink and nudge. He kept the focus on the deep and true friendships of childhood and the wonderful example Frog and Toad set with theirs.
On the other hand, “A Tuna Christmas” is all about the grown-ups and how they all too often really behave during the merriest of seasons. The play, written by Jason Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, is a follow-up to their phenomenally successful “Greater Tuna,” that revealed to the world the inhabitants of one of the tiniest towns in Texas — all portrayed by two men.
Halvorson and Scott R.C. Levy, PTC’s producing artistic director, created a cavalcade of characters that are outrageous, pathetic and poignant. Halvorson was especially good at capturing the dread and regret of being trapped in a place that will never change.
Levy, who appears without facial hair for the first time at PTC, is heartrending and hysterical at the same time as the women whose lives have been shaped by worthless men. His grandmother Pearl captures the physical challenges of aging while still portraying the feisty nature that lives just under the surface ready to pounce.
Director Joye Cook-Levy used the great height difference between the tall Halvorson and short Levy to great and hilarious advantage. Miming picking up phones, cups and other props, however, didn’t really work. Characters so grounded in reality need to grasp real things so the audience isn’t constantly reminded it’s only make-believe.
On opening night, some of the actors’ quick costume changes took too long and a major wardrobe malfunction with one of Halvorson’s female outfits had the audience in stitches but also put the performers off the pace and rhythm of the show.
PTC is taking a risk offering what might be unfamiliar works this Christmas. Although everyone’s inclination is to cut back in these difficult economic times, live theater offering this much laughter is not the place to start.
“A Year With Frog and Toad” and “A Christmas Tuna” may not offer the standard message for the season but theatergoers around Bangor should take its lessons about the value of true friendship to heart and bring their very own Frog and-or Toad to the theater for Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s.
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If You Go
What: “A Year With Frog and Toad,” based on the books by Arnold Lobel; book and lyrics by Willie Reale; music by Robert Reale
What else: “A Tuna Christmas,” by Jason Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard
Who: Penobscot Theatre Company
Where: Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor
When: Through Tuesday, Dec. 23
Contact: 942-3333 or visit www.penobscottheatre.org