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Of Frogs and Men

Matthew Murray reviews the newly released cast albums of A Year With Frog and Toad and The Thing About Men. logo
Today is the scheduled release date for the cast recordings of two very different shows. Both are musical comedies that ran on New York stages in 2003 and each is a unique show with a very specific kind of charm. Musical theater enthusiasts will certainly want to consider purchasing both, as they have a great deal to offer.

The first is A Year With Frog and Toad. PS Classics is re-releasing the show's independently produced original cast recording of the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis production with attractive new packaging that includes lots of color photos of the cast members and the show's lyrics. Overall, this is an excellent memento of a delightful show that went on to play at the New Victory Theatre in NYC before transferring to Broadway.

A Year With Frog and Toad is remarkably faithful to the Arnold Lobel books on which it was based, and the songs of composer Robert Reale and lyricist-librettist Willie Reale perfectly capture four seasons in the lives of the two amphibian title characters. The show (and hence, this disc) is little more than a series of vignettes but the songs are good enough to give the musical the bouncy, playful feel it needs; they range from the touching and melodic "Alone" to the country-tinged "The Letter" to the show-stopping "I'm Coming Out of My Shell." That last-named number is one of the score's real treasures and it's performed to full effect by Frank Vlastnik as the terminally slow mail-delivering Snail.

Everyone in the cast is given opportunities to shine. Jay Goede and Mark-Linn Baker play the title roles with plenty of good-natured personality while Vlastnik, Kate Reinders, and Danielle Ferland fill out the chorus of chattering animals in humorous and entertaining ways. They're all fine in their solos and in group numbers like "Cookies" (a tribute to the time-honored dessert) and "Getta Loada Toad" (an upbeat number with a terrific comic and musical build). Every song and every performance is a prize, each one highly individual and beautifully, zanily theatrical. Irwin Fisch's peppy orchestrations and Linda Twine's energetic musical direction add to the fun.

This recording is missing the winter dance scene that was included in the show during its brief Broadway run. Note also that Reinders, who left to play Dainty June in Gypsy, was replaced by Jennifer Gambatese for the Broadway engagement. But if this recording doesn't represent the final version of the show, that's a small complaint; it's great to have the score of one of the most charming new musicals in years so well preserved for posterity.

In contrast, The Thing About Men wasn't a family show but, rather, a musical fairy tale for adults. Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music) based TTAM on Doris Dörrie's 1985 German film Männer (Men in English). It tells the story of a philandering advertising executive named Tom (played by Marc Kudisch), who moves in with the Bohemian artist Sebastian (Ron Bohmer) with whom Tom's wife, Lucy (Leah Hocking), is having an affair. Comic complications ensue but, in the end, everyone ends up happier and a little bit wiser.

Most reviewers had lukewarm reactions to the show and it ran Off-Broadway for about six months. The book was slightly overlong and tended to drag in the second act, but this cast recording will probably do a great deal to redeem the reputation of The Thing About Men. The score has a unique sound, simultaneously traditional and "post modern" in the way that it ingeniously marries uptown and downtown, corporate and artistic sensibilities. (This is due largely to the clever orchestrations of Bruce Coughlin.)

Hocking scores the show's best number in "Because," a Jason Robert Brown-style "story-song" in which her character rationalizes her infidelities, but the score is uniformly strong throughout. The exciting first-act finale, "Downtown Bohemian Slum," is nearly operatic in scope. Jennifer Simard and Daniel Reichard, as the show's all-purpose ensemble members, make absolute hoots of the contrasting good date/bad date songs "Me Too" and "One-Woman Man." It's a shame that more of their performances weren't captured on this disc; they did some of the best comic work of the season in their multiple roles but their big numbers, "You Will Never Get Into This Restaurant" for him and "Highway of Your Heart" for her, don't come across as well on the recording as they did live. The score also contains a few thoughtful, sensitive numbers -- "Take Me Into You," "The Greatest Friend," "The Better Man Won" -- and Kudisch easily sells his songs with his trademark operettic bravado.

It should be said that this CD doesn't stand up very well to repeated listening; certain songs are always fun but some of the more plot-heavy numbers tend to grow a bit wearisome. Nevertheless, The Thing About Men is enjoyable -- in a very different way, and for a very different audience, than A Year With Frog and Toad.

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