Stage Review: Sondheim's 'Frogs' is ribeting musical

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Here's a welcome collector's item: "The Frogs," a minor work by modern master Stephen Sondheim, based on a satiric comedy by ancient master Aristophanes.

Jordan Grubb, left, as Xanthias and Dale Spollett as Dionysos are entertaining in "The Frogs."
Click photo for larger image.

'The Frogs'

Where: Point Park University at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
When: Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
Tickets: $12-$14; 412-621-4445.

Written by Sondheim in early midcareer, with a book by Burt Shevelove, with whom he'd worked on the similar "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "The Frogs" first went no further than a 1974 student show at Yale that included Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang and Larry Blyden. But in 2004 it was extensively rewritten by Nathan Lane, who starred alongside Roger Bart in an elaborate Broadway production at Lincoln Center. (Read that review here.)

Now it's staged by adventurous director Scott Wise and Point Park University in the Pittsburgh Playhouse's large Rockwell Theatre, in one of the first productions anywhere (perhaps the very first?) since Broadway. It stays true to its heritage, mixing Aristophanic pratfall satire with a Sondheim score that swings from witty to pretty to rambunctious, but it also mines the Greek original for the serious issue of the role of the arts in a world beset by war and folly.

What's not to like? Add that the Point Park students acquit themselves with ability -- Dale Spollett's Dionysos has a fair student approximation of Lane's own comic command -- and you have an entertaining oddity, a real gift for any musical theater fan.

Its only drawback is a strain of literary joking with a Masterpiece Theatre sheen, which may be caviar to the general. There's inventive byplay between ancient and modern ("the time is the present; the place, ancient Greece") and jokes about the Augean Stables and Medusa -- and lots about theater.

More seriously, in protest against corrupt leaders who govern through fear, Dionysos wants to bring back to Earth the dramatist who will best help us overcome the complacency and philistinism of the Frogs, who are those governed mainly by self-interest.

In Aristophanes, the debate is for primacy in tragedy between Aeschylus and Euripides, with an underlying argument on behalf of comedy. Sondheim, Shevelove and Lane turn it into a debate between G.B. Shaw's intellectual dialectic and William Shakespeare's poetic insight, with an underlying argument on behalf of music.

Dionysos thinks the living most need Shaw's rigor, and Shaw makes a very good account of himself, but didacticism melts before the emotional connection of Shakespeare's art -- an art assisted by music. The surprisingly emotional resolution gives the show an ethical, moral heart.

Of course that comes after lots of silliness, baggy-toga comedy, sex jokes and dancing guys and girls, choreographed by Zeva Barzell and music-directed by the ubiquitous Douglas Levine.

Spollett holds it all together, along with Jordan Grubb as his witty, nervy slave, Xanthias. Kevin Doyle has a grand comic double-turn as the cranky boatman, Charon, and vengeful Aeskos, and Adam Chisnall is a funny, carrot-topped Pluto -- the presiding deity of Hades imagined as Ed Wynn.

Kalen Hall admirably argues for Shaw and Mike Mazzocca very prettily for Shakespeare. (Their dialogue is all adapted from their works, which gives Shaw a temporary advantage, because he had a lot more to say about Shakespeare than the Bard did about him.) Other roles add other comic flavors, such as the Amazon played by Fallon Jethroe.

I can't even count the huge ensemble, which shows up as Frogs, Revelers and Shavians. This is a big show, handsomely displayed on Michael Thomas Essad's set of classical columns, with a few elaborate surprises, such as a Charon's boat.

And the whole unexpected gift runs just through Sunday.


Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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