Tall, sweet and goggle-eyed. Short, grumpy and warty. Frog and Toad -- opposites, to be sure, but fast friends forever, with a brotherly bond as cozy and uncomplicated as hot chocolate and fresh-baked cookies, picnics and stories by the fire.
"A Year With Frog and Toad," presented by International City Theatre in its Southern California premiere, has traveled far on its gentle charms. Based on Arnold Lobel's beloved children's books, this pocket-sized family show was originally brought to life by the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis. A brief 2003 run on Broadway earned the show three Tony Award nominations, for best musical, book and original score.
In this new incarnation, writer and lyricist Willie Reale and composer Robert Reale's clean mix of simple truths and sophisticated, Jazz Age crafting retain notable shine.
But tender and humorous observances of enduring affection and the passage of time, while well sung, are missing the resonances that would recommend the show to adults sans kids in tow.
Weak chemistry between the two leads, Gary Cearlock as Frog and Danny Stiles as Toad, is partly to blame. Both have big, melodic voices. Stage veteran Cearlock is the embodiment of mild, introspective Frog, but edgier Stiles, while tickling the youngest funny bones in the audience with some broad physical comedy, hasn't found his inner "Toad." His superficial emotive responses keep Cearlock at a figurative arm's length.
That Stiles and director-choreographer Kay Cole might dig a little deeper is underscored by moments like Cearlock's poignant solo, "Alone," and Jeffrey Landman's comic turn as a snail with delusions of speed. Snail's months-long trek to deliver a letter is a running joke and the physically slight, big-voiced Landman turns out to be a mite too welcome a show-stealer as he enlivens the production with devilish glee.
As the musical wends its way through the seasons and Lobel's simple tales, Frog and Toad bake cookies, rake leaves, take a dip in the pond and fend off various furred and feathered smart-alecks. (Among the five-member cast, Landman, Elizabeth Brackenbury and Jennifer Clinton play multiple roles, as cheeky birds, moles, squirrels and other assorted characters.)
Costume designer Nadine Parkos' quirky clothing, not plushy animal parts, nicely define each character, and the action is framed by lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick's subtle shadows and colorful skies and Daniel L. Wheeler's simple, woodsy set. This includes a leafy painted canopy that morphs into a froggy monster that looms large in Frog's imagination (Kevin Rittner's otherwise clean sound design booms overloud when the monster speaks).
Throughout, the six-member offstage orchestra, conducted by pianist Daniel Thomas, lends considerable style. For the most part, though, Cole imparts the small-scale feel of traditional children's theater. The result is sunny, pleasant, sometimes admirable, but not necessarily up to the musical's intended all-ages appeal.
'A Year With Frog and Toad'
Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Oct. 2
Price: $35 to $45; ages 12 and under, $30
Contact: (562) 436-4610; www.ictlongbeach.com
Running time: 90 minutes