The holiday offering from Theatre IV, "A Year with Frog and Toad," effectively undermines any negative expectations you might have about a children's show. Instead of simplistic, throwaway songs, this musical is full of jaunty tunes with clever lyrics, all given remarkably lush orchestrations by musical director Paul Deiss. While the episodic plot isn't complex, the straightforward stories, lifted from Arnold Lobel's celebrated books, illustrate heartwarming lessons about friendship while celebrating such simple pleasures as eating freshly baked cookies.
But perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the production are the performances — robust and engaging characterizations delivered by director Steve Perigard's talented cast. Playing the titular characters, Christopher Stewart makes Toad a lovable worrywart, while Robert Throckmorton's Frog is more adventurous and devil-may-care. Regardless of their differences, the two amphibians remain devoted to each other. Each goes out of his way to make the other happy by doing simple things such as raking the other's lawn or by making an unexpected lunch. Most of their plans go awry in some mildly comic way, but this never threatens to derail their baseline affection.
Other cast members — Nicole Oberleitner, Todd Patterson and Susan Sanford — create a terrific supporting coterie of woodland creatures. Sanford and Oberleitner portray playfully mischievous squirrels one moment and beautifully aloof birds the next. Patterson's snail is particularly memorable: Entrusted to deliver a letter from Frog to Toad, his not-too-speedy progress results in his entertaining reappearance throughout the show.
The production offers a near-constant stream of surprises. The actors' voices are uniformly strong, and Deiss often has them singing in satisfying harmony. Just as soon as you start taking the full-bodied music for granted, you'll be delighted by Leslie Owens-Harrington's spry choreography. The ingenious set design by Mercedes Schaum facilitates an exciting windblown sled ride and includes a pond in which Toad can actually submerge. Joe Doran's lighting design helps evoke each season while the year proceeds from spring through winter and back to spring again. And Terry Snyder's costumes, while surprisingly dapper, effectively capture the essence of each animal.
Through the years, Perigard has demonstrated exceptional skill at staging shows as heartfelt and intense as "Intimate Apparel" or as campy and ridiculous as "Psycho Beach Party." "Frog and Toad" makes clear that his talents include the deft touch required to make a children's story both fun for kids and fulfilling for grown-ups. S
"A Year with Frog and Toad" plays at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn through Dec. 31. Call 282-2620 or go to theatreivrichmond.org for tickets and information.