By Jennifer Levin
Generations of children grew up on Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, which the beloved American author wrote and illustrated in the 1970s. Frog is the cheerier of the amphibian best friends, while Toad can be a bit of a curmudgeon. They rake leaves, go sledding, and bake cookies together, as friends do. Sometimes they argue, as friends do. But they always forgive each other.
The simple stories of friendship based in kindness and mutual respect landed on Broadway in 2003 as A Year with Frog and Toad, with a script by Robert Reale and book and lyrics by Willie Reale. The show was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Santa Fe Playhouse presents the Theater for Young Audiences version of A Year with Frog and Toad, opening Friday, Dec. 3, with preview performances Dec. 1-2. The production stars Christian Libonati as Frog and Koppany Pusztai as Toad. It’s directed by Patrick MacDonald and Emily Rankin, with choreography by Patrick and music direction by Eliana Joy O’Brien.
A Year with Frog and Toad takes place over four seasons. In the Playhouse production, James W. Johnson’s set design is reminiscent of the banks of the Santa Fe River, with hints of adobe architecture and other City Different-specific touches. Frog and Toad live in a community with many other animals, including birds, lizards, snails, turtles, and squirrels, played by an ensemble of three actors who must make dozens of costume changes during the hour-long show. Bear Shacht plays Bird, Lizard, Mole, Father Frog, and Snail, the last of whom sings one of the show’s popular numbers, “I’m Coming out of My Shell.”
“He has some great vocal moments,” says Karen Gruber Ryan, who plays Bird, Mouse, Mole, Squirrel, and Young Frog. “He has a fun dance solo as well.”
“I have a dance solo—which I’ve never said before in my life,” says Terri Scullin, who plays Bird, Turtle, Squirrel, Mole, and Mother Frog. “It’s in front of the curtain, while everybody else is getting changed.”
Karen and Terri are old friends who appeared together in the Playhouse productions of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (2018), which Patrick directed, and Cabaret (2017), which he choreographed. They’re both acting for the first time since the pandemic began.
“When I saw that Patrick was directing, I had to audition,” says Karen.
Karen moved to Santa Fe from Seattle in 2013 and is the Medicare outreach coordinator for La Familia Medical Center. She first appeared at Santa Fe Playhouse in Madwoman of Chaillot, in 2015. Terri moved to Santa Fe in 2015 to teach performing arts at the Rio Grande School, where she works with kids in kindergarten through sixth grade. Both are excited for the challenges of A Year with Frog and Toad, where the ensemble is on stage—or singing from backstage—for most of the show. Or, they’re frantically changing their costumes. Designed by David Stallings, the various getups range from bright, monochromatic overalls to hilariously elaborate bathing suits, in a color-scheme that pays homage to the rainbow flag and the understated LGBTQ+ themes of the source material by Lobel, who came out late in his life.
As embodied by Christian and Koppany, Frog and Toad are playful yet emotionally mature—and very different from one another. Terri and Karen say the actors have developed the characters’ deep friendship as well as their stark contrasts. Toad is the kind of guy who’s chronically perturbed at the world—though not cynical or angry. When something is wrong, he tends to dwell, but he also embraces life’s joys, like freshly baked cookies. Frog tends to let the bad stuff roll off him. He’s unfailingly patient with Toad, and wants to solve his problems.
“Both characters just warm my heart,” says Karen. “I play Young Frog [in a flashback sequence]. I just love that character. It’s so well-written and cute. It’s an empowered young little frog that takes control of a situation.”
The play’s important lessons are delivered with humor—and plenty of song and dance. Adults will love the show as much as children. “There is a sweetness to it, but it’s kind of like when you watch Elf,” Terri explains. “There are parts that the kids laugh at and get, and parts that kids don’t understand, and the adults are cracking up.”
Terri, 55, and Karen, 52, have a few decades on the actors that the theater world typically casts in the demanding ensemble roles, but they roll their eyes at anyone who would consider them too old. “Is the idea that we can’t do the dance numbers? Because I’m in better shape now than I was when I was younger,” Karen says. “I’m excited to jump into a musical with song and dance, and crazy quick changes. I don’t think about it in terms of ‘I’m getting too old for this.’ I’m still excited to do it.”
Terri attributes a bias against older, female-identifying actors to directors with short-sighted casting vision. She recalls auditioning for the role of Miss Adelaid in Guys and Dolls many years ago. “The director came up to me and whispered in my ear. She said ‘Honey, I don’t want to say you’re too old for this part, but you’re too old for this part.’ I was 30. I wasn’t too old by any stretch of the imagination.” Patrick has no such limitations. When he choreographed Cabaret, he understood that not all dancers in pre-war Berlin were likely to have been young and beautiful.
“You can’t worry about what other people think,” says Terri. “Patrick knew that about me, because in Cabaret I was in the most embarrassing clothing I’ve ever been in in my life. I think what you need for Frog and Toad are actors who are young at heart and willing to play. Karen and I roll on the ground. That’s what we both bring to this—we’re big kids.”
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