‘The Frogs’-MasterVoices Disinters the Show’s Wit and Wisdom

In 405 B.C., comic dramatist Aristophanes wrote The Frogs against the final stages of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. His amphibians likely represented Greeks whom the playwright felt were apathetic in light of necessary change. Sondheim’s articulate frogs sing: “Brek-kek, kek-kek/Rib-et, rib-et…Whaddaya care if the world’s a wreck/Leave’ em alone, send ‘em a check/Sit in the sun and what the heck…” Admonition and lyrics resonate today.

Douglas Sills as Dionysos and Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias

While a graduate student at Yale, Burt Shevelove authored a loose, one hour, non-musical adaptation of the piece. A 1962 collaboration with Stephen Sondheim (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) brought the men together. Twelve years later, Shevelove approached Sondheim about making a musical of his version. This was produced, like its first incarnation, at the university’s gym swimming pool. Among chorus members were Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang. It was supposed to be a lark. There would be no critics, lots of student vocalists, Shevelove would direct. Sondheim compared disastrous acoustics to “a men’s urinal.”

Nathan Lane as the Host

We hear the sound of heralding horns. “I’m Nathan Lane and this is all my fault,” the artist says from a podium. In 2000, Lane participated in a concert version of the piece. He subsequently convinced Sondheim to expand it into a full length musical. Lane would add book – a contribution that seems to consist solely of obvious vaudeville jokes and one-liners. Sondheim would write additional songs. Susan Stroman would direct and choreograph.

Instead of Dionysus (god of drama and wine) traveling to the underworld to bring back Aeschylus or Euripides to provoke Athens to revitalization, the new iteration would keep Shevlove’s update featuring Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare. Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that the apparently Las Vegas-like presentation was one of ill conceived excess.

Tonight’s version eschews most of those mistakes revealing the charming, slight piece beneath. The only arguable surfeit is an over abundance of chorus members who fill three balconies behind the stage as well as being represented upon it. Director/conductor Ted Sperling helms splendid vocals, excelling at the recreation of Sondheim’s penchant for sometimes dissonant counterpoint, but as often occurs with so very many voices, otherwise excellent Sound Designer Scott Lehrer is hard pressed to maintain audibility of lyrics which ebb and flow. Soloists are pristine.

Character Costumes (Tracy Christensen) are minimal, apt, and droll. Dancers wear colored leotards rather than the last production’s “Cirque du Soleilesque” ensembles, as noted by Brantley. Choreography by Lainie Sakakura is all sinewy arms and legs; fun.

“Athens was not a happy place,” Lane continues. “Dionysos (Douglas Sills – restrained and adorable) and his servant Xanthias (Kevin Chamberlain, who doesn’t make enough of comic opportunity) journey to Hades to save the world, but first a prayer.” “Gods of the theater smile on us,” Dionysos sings. “…but firsts some dos and don’ts…If we should get satirical/Don’t take it wrong/And if by sudden miracle/A tune should appear that’s lyrical/Don’t hum along…” Familiar? The invocation was almost used in A Funny Thing Happen on the Way to the Forum to fill similar need. Both work.

From left: Marc Kudisch as Herakles,
Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias, Douglas Sills as Dionysos

Looking for advice, Dionysos and Xanthias (cue jaunty travel number) stop to see the god’s brother Herakles (Marc Kudish in a role that might’ve been written for his assets.) The siblings compare notes on womanizing father Zeus. “How does he keep it up?” “With the help of Viagra.” “The god of perseverance.” Ba-dump-dump jokes are clearly Lane, not Sondheim or Shevelove. Flexing and preening, Herakles tells his brother he must walk taller. A lesson in confident, manly stride directly mirrors La Cage aux Folles (in which Lane starred). Kudisch and Sills are wonderful.

Foreground from left: Douglas Sills as Dionysos,
Chuck Cooper as Charon, Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias

“You gotta look messy/Not saucy/Less dressy/More bossy/Be messy/Not glossy…” Herakles sings. Donation of a lion skin helps Dionysis’s waffling self assurance. Charon the boatman (an underused Chuck Cooper) takes them across the river Styx, offering his passengers weed. (Lane again) Dionysos recalls/hears from dead wife Ariadne (Candice Corbin-lovely voice) in a haunting ballad.

The dreaded frogs appear in frisky, bothersome number. (Dionysos has a phobia about frogs.) When they drag the god overboard, Lane notes “This leads Xanthias to think the show’s about him.” Ba-dump-dump. Dionysos gets away. Charon says the cruise line takes no responsibility. To my mind, much if not all of the low brow humor could’ve been communicated by acting.

Dancers/Frogs with Douglas Sills as Dionysos and Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias

Pluto, at the helm of Hades (Peter Bartlett, delicately hysterical) and the chorus sing a paean to their delightful, misunderstood home. “It’s got flash! It’s got flair!? It’s got spectacle to spare!…You’re not afraid of time rushing by/All because you’re not afraid to die…Party!” “Oh, I hate it when they make such a fuss,” Pluto mutters smiling. Dionysos explains his quest. Pluto agrees. At this point, the god breaks into “I knew that I could do it/And indeed I did’ to the tune of “You Did It” from My Fair Lady. Really?! Sills is believably gleeful.

Dylan Baker as George Bernard Shaw in suit, Douglass Sills as Dionysos

Shaw arrives. (Dylan Baker, appropriately pompous.) His seriousness gives Dionysos pause. Will this method of delivering the message get through to people? Cue Shakespeare – whom, in his life, Shaw disparaged. (Jordan Donica, who might lighten up to contrast more with his “opponent.”)  The core of Greek comedy is the Agon – a contest/debate between two parties resulting in a decisive win. Here Shakespeare stands for poetic imagination; Shaw for clarity of thought. Using their own work, the two begin oral combat. The Bard wins. Pluto is distressed, offering to throw in Ibsen if the god takes obstreperous Shaw.

An epilogue written in 2004 exhorts the audience not to be frogs. “Speak up, Get sore! /Do something more than just deplore!”

Foreground from left: Dylan Baker as George Bernard Shaw,
Peter Bartlett as Pluto, Marc Kudisch as Herakles, Douglas Sills as Dionysos,
Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias, Chuck Cooper as Charon

I didn’t see the Lincoln Center production, but gather from Brantley’s review there’s considerably less of Lane’s shtick in this iteration. If we keep chipping away…Still, he may have made other contributions and we have Lane to thank for goosing new songs. Musical passages like those from On the Way to the Forum, Company and Into the Woods can be heard.

The Frogs is a small story with a big message, best let breathe without too many bells and whistles. Master Voices comes close. The piece is well cast; production runs smoothly. We Frogs are entertained. One can only wonder how many leave thinking.

Photos by Erin Baiano
Opening: Peter Bartlett (Pluto) and Douglas Sills (Dionysos)

MasterVoices presents
The Frogs– Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on a comedy written in 405 B.C. by Aristophanes
Freely adapted by Burt Shevelove
Even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane
Original Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Ted Sperling- Conductor/Director
Narrated by Nathan Lane
Rose Theater Frederick P. Rose Hall

About Alix Cohen (1755 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.