January 19, 2020

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That's what friends are for

MTYP production gives kids and adults a lesson on being a BFF

Toad (Katie German, right) sings to Frog (Mathew Armet) during A Year with Frog and Toad at Manitoba Theatre for Young People. It runs until Dec. 29. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Toad (Katie German, right) sings to Frog (Mathew Armet) during A Year with Frog and Toad at Manitoba Theatre for Young People. It runs until Dec. 29. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

Somewhere near the beginning of this kid-friendly musical, the good-hearted Frog (Matthew Armet) hears that his best pal Toad (Katie German) has never in her life received a letter. Being such a conscientious friend, Frog writes Toad a letter and gives it to another friend, Snail (Ari Weinberg) to deliver. Alas, snails will be snails, and it takes the gutsy gastropod pretty much the 85-minute length of the play to finally deliver the missive.

And that, in a snailshell, is a summation of the theme of this sprightly adaptation of a children’s book by Arnold Lobel: Friendship, like the business of mail delivery, requires patience.

That seems a good lesson for kids to learn in an era of instant gratification. It’s especially proper to deliver it in a theatre space for kids, since most kids can get a little antsy over the course of a full-length theatre production.

To counteract that, director Pablo Felices-Luna has a few cards up his sleeve to keep the kids amused, and stacks that same deck with strong performances by Armet and German.

Armet bestows charm and physical grace to Frog. In the role of Toad, German brings big heart to the meatier role: Toad is high-maintenance, a touch neurotic, even phobic in contrast to Frog’s comparatively even keel. When Toad learns for example that Frog has taken a day for himself, she decides to intervene in case her buddy is feeling sad. In fact, Frog is happily enjoying his afternoon of solitude, but generously accepts Toad’s intervention in the spirit in which it was given.

A Year with Frog and Toad teaches that friendship, like the business of mail delivery, requires patience. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

A Year with Frog and Toad teaches that friendship, like the business of mail delivery, requires patience. (Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press)

The adults in the room may smile in recognition. Really, don’t we all know couples like that?

That said, the dynamic of this particular show is a little different than usual. Both Frog and Toad are generally played by males, as in the 1970s-era children’s books by American author Arnold Lobel. This show suggests boys and girls can also be friends without bearing the load of romantic entanglement.

These stories, encompassing the four seasons of the year, are unrelated to the animal stories from The Wind in the Willows by Scottish novelist Kenneth Grahame, but they share an almost English eccentricity about them. A whole musical number — Getta Loada Toad — is devoted to Toad’s insecurity about her body image ("Toad looks funny in a bathing suit!") and it has a touch of Freudian nightmare about it that connects it to the likes of Grahame and even Lewis Carroll.

The show is performed in an alley configuration (with audiences on either side of the performance space, facing each other) to mirror the dynamic of these two characters, whose homes are on opposite sides of the stage. It’s a challenging thing to entertain both sides of the MTYP auditorium at the same time, but Felices-Luna stages the action with subtlety and the set/costume design by Jackie Chau is ‘60s-bright and psychedelic-kitschy, as opposed to the retro steampunk look of past productions.

It helps having supporting performers who can help fill that space. Ari Weinberg, dressed in eye-popping yellow, manages that task with an outsize performance as the slow-talking snail who believes himself to be speedy. ("I put the ‘Go’ in escargot," he sings.) His fellow ensemble performers Rochelle Kives and Brittany Hunter add touches of balletic grace (Hunter) and sass (Kives) to the proceedings, as required.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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