Currently at the Alma Theatre in Cain Park, is a fascinating production of the award winning The Frogs. (Award winning in 405 B.C.). This satire took shots at the political arena of the day, and also, enjoyed poking fun at the theatre audience, with gems like “If it’s not sold out, I don’t want to see it.” Written by Aristophanes, this play has enjoyed quite a journey of adaptation, in order to find it present form as a musical. In 1941 Bret Shevelove adapted the play into a book musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. In 1979, Nathan Lane became interested and added his own revamping of the piece, which enabled taking more current jabs at political situations. So with additional music by Sondheim, the Lane driven adaptation opened on Broadway on July 22, 2004.
Being a Sondheim aficionado, Director Martin Friedman has spent the past 20 years exploring his intricate and demanding work. So, with the support of Cain Park Artistic Director Ian Hinz, and Producer Erin Cameron Miller, this greatly under produced musical came to fruition. Friedman has assembled a remarkable production team and adventurous thespians to tackle this romp to Hades and back. The musical follows Dionysos (Dan Folino*), Greek god of wine and drama, and his slave Xanthias (Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly*), on a journey to Hades to collect renowned critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw (Michael Regnier), so that he may enlighten the misled and corrupt (The Frogs), who are engulfed in their own clouded vision. They are assisted by Herakles (Darryl Lewis*), as he provides an undercover personae. Along this journey to Hades, they meet gods, lost souls, and some creepy Matrix loving Frogs. Finally, with the permission of Pluto (Nicole Sumlin*), Dionysos has to choose between Shaw and William Shakespeare (Mitchell Fields*), in the Hades version of “So You Think You Can Recite.”
This production is entertaining as hell, but also had some confusing moments. The confusing moments are observations intended for the director. As far as entertaining, Folino brings his exuberant talent to the role of Dionysos. With tremendous confidence and charm, he certainly would be able to win any election as a write in candidate. With a clear voice, deft diction, he handles the scored life a pro, while delivering his sarcastic comedic bits with wild abandon. I am sure some are scripted, and some are definitely not. Confusing was the fact that in Act One, the comedic delivery was in the style of comedian Mitch Hedberg, and then in Act Two, that seemed to go away. As the sidekick Xanthias, Reilly goes toe to toe with Folino, delivering a full out, fearless, crazy and eventually hormone induced character. Exuding confidence, she was the perfect foil partner. However, this role was actually intended for a male, which would make the story almost a buddy adventure. Because of the choice to cast a female, the score needs to be adapted to a female voice range, which in this case made way for a higher register. And, when Xanthias loses her virginity, it becomes a lesbian adventure, however, it would be a lot funnier, if “his” first time was getting laid by Amazon woman. Go big, or go home. But, that is just me.
One of the funniest characters in this show is Charon, the ferryman of Hades, played with one liner brilliance by Eric Thomas Fancher. Killing me. His one eyed patched creepy ferryman gig was outstanding. And just as entertaining as Aekos, the Gatekeeper. Good Stuff. Lewis arrives on the scene looking like Mr. T’s twin, who decided to enter musical theatre. He has a grand presence, a powerful voice, an electric face and comedic chops to sell everything. Sumlin is purple pleasure palace of talent. Entering like Beyonce on tour, she illuminates the stage with her voice, presence, and sublime acting skills. And the fact that this role was intended for a male, didn’t stop her from making it her own.
The pièce de résistance of the evening is the showdown between Fields and Regnier. Each embodying their characters with deft characterization, these two are a scream. What is amazing about this whole moment, is the fact that what makes it so funny, is that the two actors deliver their prose in an uncanny realistic brilliant delivery. It is wonderful fun, and in itself, something you should not miss.
The rest of the cast is great. The stunning Neely Gevaart as Ariadne, the lost love, is memorizing. The cast execute some fierce choreography, led by dance captains, energetic Nora Culley^+, and the uber talented Tom Sweeney^+. Sidney Perelman, Trey Gilpin^, Lydia Hall, Kelly Elizabeth Smith^, and Meg Wittman^ deliver some intense Frog realness.
Director Friedman has done a great job bringing this piece to life. It is a fearless decision. His staging is wonderful, and his supporting and positive presence is felt throughout. Music Director Nathan Motta provided excellent music direction, and also extended his musical vision with the hiring of Conductor/Keyboard Jordan Cooper to lead the pit. Martin Cespedes~ knocked it out of the pond. I’m sorry, I tried not to do that. The dance in this show was awesome, and the creative energy that flowed into this piece was executed with outstanding precision. Ron Newell is a scenic design god of his own. This set was fierce, and The River Styx was very cool, and sturdy for the actors that must cross. (When Mitchell Fields crosses the river, I think the entire audience is holding their breath). Lighting Designer Trad A Burns brings his electric skills again, with great effects. Sound Designer Stan Kozak delivered balanced sound (Kudos to Friedman for the preying bird sound). Costume Designer Tesia Dugan Benson delivered the goods, from hippie attire to electric colored Lycra. Stage Manager Tom Humes* called a great show.
*Member of Actor’s Equity Association
^Equity Membership Candidate
~Member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
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$15-$26 Reserved Seating
Alma Theatre at Cain Park
14591 Superior Road
Cleveland Heights, Ohio 44118