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Theater review: 'A Year with Frog and Toad' at SLAC is fanciful and expertly staged

“A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD,” through Dec. 27, Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North (801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org)

“I cannot think of any work that could be more agreeable and fun than making books for children,” said author Arnold Lobel.

Borrowing his thoughts, I can think of few activities more agreeable and fun than taking a child to Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of the musical adapted from Lobel’s book series. “A Year with Frog and Toad” is fanciful and expertly staged — a genuine joy for young theatergoers and their parents.

If you’re unfamiliar with the books, Lobel is credited with significantly loosening the traditional early reader format of children’s books by using engaging characters and out-of-the-norm vocabulary. Frog and Toad explore the importance of friendship, and theirs is a friendship that endures, weathering each season.

The books have been given prestigious awards, including a Caldecott Honor (for “Frog and Toad Are Friends”) and a Newberry Honor (for “Frog and Toad Together”). The musical enjoyed a successful Broadway run in 2003 after a sold-out off-Broadway run (when ticket prices hopped from $30 to $90), and was nominated for three Tony Awards, including best musical.

Yet it’s not vital to be intimately familiar with the Frog and Toad books to thoroughly enjoy “A Year with Frog and Toad.”

For this page-to-the-stage transfer, script writer and lyricist Willie Reale has assembled vignettes from the books to illustrate a year of their friendship, beginning with waking from hibernation in the spring through each new season. The theme throughout is that a friend can make every day unique and special. The humor and sentiments in the books are timeless, and the appealing simplicity to the storytelling has made them immensely popular.

A specialist in children’s theater, director Penelope Caywood reveals her powerfully engaging skills in all successful aspects of the staging. Working in tandem with music director Darrin Doman, Caywood has staged a vivid and wonderfully bright “A Year with Frog and Toad.” The actors’ unamplified vocals are strong and clear, and the words are clearly sung to be easily understood.

Cast members perform with dedication and obvious affection for the stories. And Caywood is a savvy enough director to recognize that the best way to stage a children’s musical is to forget that it’s a children’s musical and stage it as a musical.

Logan Tarantino is the taller and friendly Frog, and Nate Waite is the more serious and uptight Toad. They are enthusiastic in their roles and give high-enthusiasm performances. The duo capture the essence of the characters, yet they struggle to define the traits that make them unique from each other. The production will be improved as their connection to their characters continues to grow.

Playing birds, squirrels, moles, a lizard, a turtle and a snail are Jenessa Bowen, Amelia Rose Moore and Terry Lee McGriff, who provide terrific support and show the same commitment and enthusiasm to their roles.

Set designer Keven Myhre shows his flair for style. One disappointment is the overly streamlined costumes by K.L. Alberts, most noticeable when Frog and Toad remove their flannel nightshirts to reveal pajama pants and T-shirts.

“A Year with Frog and Toad” boasts an energetic cast performing catchy songs to display all the charm of the books on which it is based.