Nathan Lane and John Byner in The Frogs(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Nathan Lane and John Byner in The Frogs
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
It's one thing for the critical community to dissect The Frogs and quite another to tear it to pieces. Looking at the musical that opened last month at the Vivian Beaumont, it seems abundantly clear that this is a flawed but worthy work, notable for its combination of sincerity and uproarious wit.

Owing more to Olsen and Johnson than Aristophanes, Nathan Lane's latter-day adaptation of Burt Shevelove's earlier adaptation of an Aristophanes play provides a laugh-a-minute first act and a second-act snoozefest. But the production boasts something for which the Greeks had no match: Stephen Sondheim's words and music. Okay, this isn't Sondheim's best work, but it's pretty damned good overall. And some of it is top-drawer: "Hades" is one daring piece that's as dark as anything in Assassins and just as piercingly honesty.

Let's get real, folks: The Frogs is a musical comedy. The Greeks didn't invent that form of theater; Americans did. And Nathan Lane and Stephen Sondheim know a few things about putting on a musical. As a ticket buyer sitting next to us said at intermission, "This is so much better than the reviews I read." So true! The show does fall off the lily pad late in the second act when it starts to take its politics and its art too seriously; it bogs down in an intellectual challenge match between George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare to determine which one of them will be brought back to Earth by Dionysos. A gong show for the smart set, the scene belies the musical's playfulness and the message becomes more important than the entertainment. A bad move at Broadway prices.

Lane's Dionysos freely admits his naivete in his quest to bring back from the dead a playwright who might inspire us to be better human beings. It's a fanciful but a wonderful notion. Remember, there was a time when the theater could have a profound affect on American life. Consider the power of "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific. Is there a song from any Broadway show today that could reach into the heartland the way that one did? Don't think so. Dionysos's quest to save the world through theater is all the more touching in its quixotic nature.

A strong cast buoys The Frogs. Nobody plays Nathan Lane better than Nathan Lane, and he comically commands the stage. Roger Bart is the ideal sidekick and is winning throughout. If anyone can be said to steal his or her scenes from Lane, it's John Byner as the Boatman who takes Lane and Bart across the River Styx. Burke Moses is an awesome Herakles and Peter Bartlett, who hilariously runs Hades in the role of Pluto, makes the rest of the cast look straight. Susan Stroman knows a star vehicle when she sees one, and she directs and choreographs this circus with an eye toward keeping Lane front and center. It's only when she allows Shaw and Shakespeare to dominate the stage that the show truly lags -- but that's no excuse for throwing the frogs out with the pond water.

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Mary Liz Will Make You Laugh

Mary Liz McNamara is a singer-songwriter with a distinctively off-kilter point of view. Her comedy numbers call to mind those of Christine Lavin and D.C. Anderson, but she very much has her own voice.

Her best work really takes you by surprise; songs like "Haiku" and "Bacon" aren't your standard cabaret fare. But these items and others do more than simply surprise. They have clever lyrics that underscore a wry resentment at what's expected of us, whether (in these two cases) we are hopeful artists or supposedly health-conscious eaters. In her recent show at The Duplex, McNamara's targets were everywhere. She comically expressed her anger with love in "Photojournalist" but gleefully admitted her self-love (after all, she's a performer!) in "A Song About Me."

Her ballads, however, aren't as consistently successful as her comedy numbers; she has a tendency to create vivid images but doesn't always build them into fully satisfying story songs. In theater terms, she doesn't always write a third act. For instance, McNamara fails to bring the lyrics of the lovely "I See the Lake" to the level of insight for which the song clearly cries out.

A dry wit peppers her patter; she's very entertaining whether she's talking or singing. And when she sings, her voice has a rich and pretty tone. Mary Liz McNamara puts on a good show, and that's saying a lot for her talents as both a performer and a songwriter.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]