The Frogs continues at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London until 8 April.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Stephen Sondheim was on a roll when he wrote the music and lyrics for The Frogs in 1974; his three previous shows, Company, Follies and A Little Night Music, coming during his most fertile period and establishing him as a true master of musical theatre.
It is a real curio, first performed as a lark in the Yale swimming pool with the Yale team playing frogs, but more memorable for one member of the chorus being Meryl Streep.
It came to the UK briefly, and again in a swimming pool, at Brentford Baths, for 13 performances in 1990, and here it surfaces again, most definitely not in a damp environment, at the 70-seater Jermyn Street Theatre in the heart of London’s Piccadilly, where House on the Hill Productions are calling it a UK premiere.
Sondheim completists, fascinated by the chance to hear the seven ‘new’ songs he wrote for the updated version, are among those who have ensured the show is already a success as every online ticket until its three-week run ends was sold out by press night.
The 405BC Aristophanes comedy has been freely adapted for today by Burt Shevelove and ‘even more freely’ adapted again by actor/director Nathan Lane in 2004 for 92 performances on Broadway.
It is witty in small doses but with far too much talking and nothing that sticks out as a Sondheim special outside the opening ice-breaker ‘Invocation and Instructions to the Audience’.
There we are exhorted “not to fart/There’s very little air and this is art” (particularly relevant as this little Fringe theatre is in a basement without a window in sight) and “”Please don’t leave/It only makes the actors grieve”.
It’s a lively start with Michael Matus, as Dionysos (the God of Drama) and George Rae heading a cast of nine. Both are excellent with Rae particularly amusing. Calling Viagra the god of perseverance is a good line.
There’s more dancing than singing and it’s quite a feat getting those nine doing their stuff with musical director Tim Sutton’s band of five tucked in at the side of such small stage area.
The story is total madness with strong political undertones: Dionysos and his pal Xanthias (Rae) head for Hades – that’s where the frogs come into it – to bring back George Bernard Shaw, eventually to engage Shakespeare in a competitive debate.
Dionysos believes that art could affect change if only we had a great writer like Shaw to speak to us. [It was a backlash at the total lack of eloquence on the part of George Bush, his inability to comfort the nation with words, at a pivotal time in American history after 9/11].
Martin Dickinson as Shaw and Jonathan Wadey as Charon, the ferryman of Hades, make real characters out of their parts; Li-tong Hsu is a dainty Virilla the Amazon in her black jumpsuit and has one good song; and Nigel Pilkington is in fine voice as a very serious Shakespeare.
Chris McGuigan, Emma Ralston (a bit too loud for such a small space) and Bernadette Bangura complete a cast which, under director Grace Wessels, is attacking an unusually challenging task with great gusto.
Although glad to have added The Frogs to my Sondheim portfolio, it’s not a show I have a burning desire to see again; undoubtedly clever but weird and too wordy.
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