By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Hard to tell who gets a bigger kick out of A Year With Frog and Toad—the kiddos in the seats at Dallas Children's Theater or the big people who bring them. There's something wonderful about a musical that so successfully entertains the inner child and fascinates the little one gazing wide-eyed at the stage, toy turtle clutched firmly in tiny hand.
Nominated for three Tonys for its Broadway run in 2003, the two-act adaptation of popular children's books by Arnold Lobel features a lovely 16-song score by Robert and Willie Reale. Each lyric and melody is seeded with the sophisticated influences of Sondheim, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. The book, also by Willie Reale, weaves several of Lobel's stories together with unifying themes of friendship, forgiveness and overcoming fear.
Even with its small cast of five, three of whom play multiple species of woodland creature, Frog and Toad is an enormous show. The DCT production directed by Cheryl K. Denson might be the most lavishly designed, visually stunning piece of theater produced in Dallas so far this year. From the meticulously hand-built feather hats on the bird ladies (Arianna Movassagh, Beth Albright) to the special effect of a turtle (Albright again) doing an underwater swim ballet, every element on the big stage in the Baker Theater has that first-class, Broadway-quality polish.
Designer Randel Wright, now employed full-time by DCT, doesn't just put up scenery; he makes the stage into a fluid, glowing, three-dimensional piece of art. For this one he's created spectacular revolving houses for each of the title characters, plus a magical bed of flowers that suddenly pop into blooms, a watery pool that turns to ice in winter and a yellow-eyed "large and terrible frog" looming two stories high over the stage (it even jumps rope!). Linda Blase's lighting complements all of it perfectly.
The loveliest thing about this show, however, is that it doesn't devolve into a syrupy smile-fest. It isn't easy being green or brown (with warts) in this slough of da pond. "Ten o'clock is my sad time of day," moans Toad (played by Brian Hathaway). He's a morose thing in natty tweeds and spats (designed by Barbara C. Cox), depressed because he never gets any mail. Best friend Frog (Bob Hess) does what any pal would do; he writes Toad a letter and hands it to Snail (Darius-Anthony Robinson) for delivery. The running joke then becomes how slowly snail-mail travels. When, at the end of the second act, Toad finally receives the envelope, it's a triumph for him and the messenger. Snail feels such a sense of accomplishment he takes center stage to belt "I'm Coming Out of My Shell."
The singing and dancing are dandy, but the best moments in A Year With Frog and Toad are the cool conversations between cold-blooded critters. "What do you want to do today?" Frog asks Toad, who answers "I don't know. What do you want to do?" Back and forth they go, just two little guys, a bit ugly, a lot lonely, reaching out to each other for company. It's like a kindergarten Marty. Children's theater written by lily-Paddy Chayefsky.
Garland Summer Musicals' production of Damn Yankees would be a lot more fun if it didn't feel like a double-header. The first act alone runs close to two hours, with a badly needed seventh-inning stretch coming when other shows are taking curtain calls. By the time the second act rounds the bases for the last time at 11 p.m., the musical about a baseball fan selling his soul to the devil has qualified for its own sweaty little bleacher in theater hell.
Damn Yankees shouldn't be such a slog. (The movie's a full hour shorter.) The show is full of juicy tunes—"Whatever Lola Wants," "(You Gotta Have) Heart," "Two Lost Souls"—that nudge the story along the way songs should in a good musical. A Broadway smash in the mid-1950s, Damn Yankees has enjoyed plenty of revivals, notably on Broadway again in 1994 with an active assist from its original writer-director, George Abbott. He was 106 at the time. He died the following year.
The Garland production directed by Buff Shurr has drafted some strong local performers for the leads. As Joe Hardy, the frustrated baseball nut who makes his Faustian deal to bat one winning season for the Washington Senators, handsome Joshua Doss looks like a jock and sings like an angel. Doss is a comer on the Dallas musical theater scene, with recent starring credits at Lyric Stage and Uptown Players. His nemesis in Yankees, the devil-may-care (and he does) Mr. Applegate, is played by John Garcia, a likable supporting actor. He takes this character into some broadly camp directions, but at least when Garcia is onstage, mugging like Danny DeVito with more hair, there are plenty of laughs.
For a musical comedy, this Damn Yankees is damn short on the funniness. Maybe it's the Granville Arts Center's lousy acoustics, which turn most of the dialogue into a muddle of echoes and murmurs; maybe it's that the slow, maudlin book scenes between Joe and Meg (Jenay Puckett), the dowdy wife he abandons to play ball, seem slower and maudlin-er than ever.
One of the odd quirks in the story is that pre-Applegate, Joe ignores Meg to watch baseball six months a year. But after he sells his soul to be a star player who's 20 years younger (meaning Meg doesn't recognize him when he moves back in as a boarder), Joe thinks of nothing but how much he misses his "old girl."
Joe forgets Meg long enough, however, to dally briefly with a new girl, Lola, a curvy embodiment of all deadly sins. She may get what she wants when she wants it in the show, but this production's Lola, Morgana Shaw, isn't such a winning wanton. Affecting a squeaky voice—sort of Faith Prince on helium—Shaw is hard to understand either talking or singing. Her acting is fine, but her dancing wants improvement. She might have been improvising her moves on "Whatever Lola Wants," or at least it looked that way. And Lola's slithery mambo, "Who's Got the Pain," was performed on opening night by Shaw's understudy, Jennifer Laws, which made it meaningless within the context of the scene. (Shaw has been busy prepping for the transfer of her one-woman show about Bette Davis to Broadway and missed rehearsals of Yankees; she's also been filming I Love You Phillip Morris, playing Jim Carrey's mom in flashbacks.)
As a community theater, Garland Summer Musicals casts amateurs in the ensemble against professionals in the leads. The guys playing the Senators bat about .500 with their singing and dancing in Yankees. Keith Warren has a goofy L'il Abner quality as Rocky, the team star before Joe's arrival knocks him to the bottom of the order. He and the other Senators kick up their knees in some lively dance sequences, choreographed by Joseph Jones with a few minor nods to Bob Fosse's steps for the original Broadway and film versions. The men's voices blend nicely on the miles and miles and miles of "Heart." And the pit band, led by Jeff Crouse, is terrific.
Other details betray the amateur side of GSM. Joke after joke goes splat because of uneven timing, and there's an abundance of nervous emoting and wooden delivery in the smaller roles. Michael Robinson and Suzi Shankle's costumes offer a confusing blend of 1950s glamour for Lola with contemporary and mostly unflattering clothing on other characters. The two gushing Joe Hardy fans, played by Delynda Moravec and Linda Frank, wear wigs shaped like coneheads. And why do the Senators' uniforms make them look so much like the blue-and-white pin-striped Yankees they despise?
Still, if you don't mind some fraying at the edges, Damn Yankees is a good old-fashioned show that delivers a corny message about love outlasting glory. Garland Summer Musicals has been at it for 26 summers, serving as a minor league training ground for plenty of actors who've gone into major productions elsewhere. Beyond the leads, the Garland casts are populated with un- or barely paid regulars who return year after year to do shows just for the love of it. There's some glory in that.