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“The Frogs” fails to create much excitement at Cain Park

“The Frogs” fails to create much excitement at Cain Park

Roy Berko

(Member:  Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Associaition)

“The Frogs,” Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove’s musical adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy, had a novel introduction to the stage.  In 1974 it was produced in Yale University’s Swimming Pool by the Yale Repertory Theatre.

The fact that the show closed in 8 performances should have been an omen of what was to come.

Like many Greek plays, “The Frogs” looks at serious issues.  In this case, it examines the challenges of human existence and confronts fear, understandings, life, death, the role of the arts in changing the course of human evolution, and whether the common man is coerced by dubious politicians, conservatives and right-wing thinkers.

The outrageous musical, like the play, follows Dionysos, the God of wine and theatre, as he attempts to go to Hades in search of a theatrical spokesman to spread the word about earthly problems.  Dionysos doesn’t think that present day playwrights have the ability to make major impact like Chekov did, who is, often referred to as the” father of the Russian Revolution.”  Dionysos’ intention is to get Irish/British playwright George Bernard Shaw to write plays about today as he did at the turn of the century when he attacked the British political, educational, social and medical systems in his uncompromising language.

After an arduous trek, Dionysos and his slave arrive in Hades, convince the powers that be to hold a battle of words between Shaw and Shakespeare to determine who gets to come back to earth and help out society.  It’s like a prose/poetry slam.  Shakespeare wins and comes back with Dionysos, supposedly to “cure” the ills of the world with the powerful tool of theatre speech.

The musical “The Frogs,” as was the case of the original Greek version, is filled with pratfalls, satire, choral speaking, homosexual revelations, outlandish characterizations, and overblown situations.

In July, 2004, a version of the musical, which was revised “even more freely by Nathan Lane,” who starred in the production, opened in New York.  Though Sondheim added seven songs, none of them is memorable.

The show opened to mixed reviews.  Most commented on how “Lane used the stage as a forum” for his Borsht-belt shticks which were made possible by the “loose” nature of the plot.  The run lasted only 92 performances.

The Cain Park version makes allusions to people afraid of change (e.g., conservatives and Tea Party members), politicians who lie to get their needs met (e.g., G. W. Bush and Dick Chaney), and takes a general pro-liberal bent.  At the end of the show, Dionysos steps forward and addresses the audience.  He urges them to shake off lethargy, and to take action to resolve the earthly problems that plague our times.

In spite of the cast wearing microphones, The Cain Park is plagued by a sound system which makes much of the dialogue and singing unintelligible.  Since the lyrics are unfamiliar to many, the story is lost in the sloshing sound.

The show is creatively staged by Martin Friedman, the local Sondheim maven.  Friedman understands the complexity of Sondheim’s story development and erudite lyrics, but not even he can overcome the script’s weaknesses.

Dan Folino, portrays Dionysos as a 60s stoner.  This is a little strange as he relates that the play takes place “today.”  That withstanding, Folino has a strong singing voice, and displays a nice sense of the ironic.  He doesn’t have the Nathan Lane comic aura, so some of the extended humor that Lane added to the show is not present, but with the sound as it was, we probably wouldn’t have heard the asides anyway.

Michael Regnier (George Bernard Shaw) and Mitchell Fields (Shakespeare) both look amazingly like the men they are portraying, and are wonderful in reciting the writings of “The Shaw” and “The Bard.”

The standout of the production may well be wrestler turned dancer, Tom Sweeney.  The University of Michigan student lights up the stage with his dancing and expressive face.  He would make a great candidate for TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” competition and could step into a dancing role in Broadway’s “Newsies” right now.

The highlight of the show is Martin Céspedes’s choreography.  The ability of his well-synced dancers to creatively change moods and step-styles is impressive.  The section where the dancers marched like Nazis, dressed in black suits, and waving little flags emblazed with The Tea Party emblem, was meaning-filled and delightful.  The dancing gives the show its only creative texturing.

Musical Director Nathan Motta’s orchestra is excellent, backing up rather than drowning out the singers.

Ron Newell’s scenic design, complete with a river of real running water, and Tesia Dugan Benson’s costumes help in setting the right mood for the production

Capsule judgement: Though the message of “The Frogs” is generally clear, and Martin Friedman’s directing is on target, and Martin Céspedes’s choreography is prime, the script, the music, and the lyrics fail to incite much excitement.  The tepid response of the audience on preview night brings into question the wisdom in selecting this script. 

“The Frogs” runs from July 31-August 17 in the Alma Theatre of Cain Park in Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go on line to