Monday, November 6, 2023

REVIEW: The Frogs

Review of the Saturday, November 4, 2023 matinee performance at The Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Hosted by Nathan Lane. Starring Douglas Sills, Kevin Chamberlin, Peter Bartlett, Dylan Baker, Chuck Cooper, Marc Kudisch, Jordan Donica and Candice Corbin. Featuring the MasterVoices Chorus. Choreography by Lainie Sakakura. Directed and conducted by Ted Sperling. 90 minutes, no intermission. The production closed following the evening performance on November 4, 2023.

Grade: A-

Any chance to see a professional presentation of a rarely performed Stephen Sondheim musical is a must-see. Despite a Broadway outing nearly 20 years ago, The Frogs is one such work. Closest, perhaps, to his early A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, this show is a romp, more fun than serious, but certainly not without its serious political themes. In fact, the opening number, "An Invocation and Instructions to the Audience," is a trunk song from an early draft of Forum. Based on a 405 BC work by Aristophanes, it certainly supports the idea that art is timeless.

Sondheim students and fans will certainly find plenty to enjoy from this score, and I heartily recommend getting the Broadway Cast Recording. Aside from the fun word play featured in the opening number, highlights include the title number, the witty "I Love to Travel," a pithy number for Pluto and his minions called "Hades," and the lovely ballad, "Ariadne." The orchestra and 130 member-strong MasterVoices Chorus, all under the baton of Tony-winner Ted Sperling sounded beautiful in this charming space. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was the deft, athletic choreography of Lainie Sakakura, as danced by a fair-sized ensemble. When was the last time, outside of West Side Story, you really left a Sondheim show a-buzz about the dancing? 

The cast, stacked with A-list talent, did the score justice and were mostly in good form acting-wise, too. Hosted by co-writer and former star of the piece,
Nathan Lane, did what he does best - self-deprecating humor with an unparalleled droll delivery. He summarized several scenes in the show in order for a full representation of the entire score. Kevin Chamberlin and Chuck Cooper were a riot as a slave and boatman to the underworld, respectively. Dylan Baker was a delight as the uptight George Bernard Shaw, and Candice Corbin was lovely in her brief appearance as the late wife of Dionysus, Ariadne. As Pluto, Peter Bartlett was delightful as the world-wearly host with the most of Hades. Boy, can he deliver a dead-pan joke! Marc Kudisch was hilarious (and, um, limber) as the self-absorbed Heracles in his ode to style and flare, "Dress Big." As William Shakespeare, Jordan Donica nearly stole the show - his sexy, understated turn ensured that all eyes were on him - and he nailed the pomposity "Shakespearean acting."  I'm loathe to call anyone out is this terrific event, but Douglas Sills as Dionysus gave the impression of being less than fully prepared. To be fair, he carried the lion's share of the evening, and had the most to do by far. Whether it was an acting choice or lack of rehearsal time got a little blurry as he seemed to incorporate dropped lines and losing his place later in the performance. Even with all that, he was still pretty terrific.

We were new to the venue, and were really impressed by the whole place. It reminded me of a smaller version of the Kennedy Center. The Rose Theater is a lovely, intimate space with outstanding acoustics and sight lines. In fact, we sat about as far away from the stage as you can, and the view was perfect. We could clearly even see facial expressions! Don't hesitate to see something at this space. And when The Frogs comes around again, don't miss it.

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