Tuesday , May 21 2024
Douglas Sills as Dionysos and Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias. MasterVoices presents The Frogs, Conducted and Directed by Ted Sperling. Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo Credit: Erin Baiano
Douglas Sills as Dionysos and Kevin Chamberlin as Xanthias. MasterVoices presents The Frogs, Conducted and Directed by Ted Sperling. Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo Credit: Erin Baiano

Review: ‘The Frogs’ – A Concert Staging of the Stephen Sondheim Musical, Based on Aristophanes

When Nathan Lane discovered The Frogs in the Drama Book Shop in the late 1970s, and saw the names Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove on it, he envisioned something like the pair’s famous collaboration A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That isn’t what Lane found in those neglected pages.

But what he went on to develop from it – with additional music by Sondheim, and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman – grew into something indeed reminiscent of Forum, in a number of good ways.

Sondheim We Don’t Often Hear

The Frogs, based on the Aristophanes comedy from 405 BCE, was a riotous romp in this weekend’s concert staging at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Though lacking the character development or narrative guts of other great musicals from the golden eras of Broadway and Sondheim, it was a veritable Greek temple of brilliant, beautiful music and stupendous lyrics, charged with broad humor, high camp, theatrical in-jokes, and – much more than I expected – acrobatic and sometimes dizzying dance.

Lane himself took the role of the Host, introducing the story (and the story of the story) with its cast of top-line Broadway veterans headed by a magnetic Douglas Sills as Dionysos. The kind of humor we’re in for is made plain as soon as Dionysus takes the stage and tells us that “the time is the present. The place is Ancient Greece.” Later, when the action shifts to the underworld, Peter Bartlett is so hilarious as a flamboyant Pluto that Sills broke at least twice.

Ted Sperling conducted the MasterVoices Chorus, Chamber Chorus and Orchestra, while a troupe of limber dancers brought the musicalized Greek choruses of frogs and Dionysian Initiates to vigorous life. The choral numbers, as well as the solo songs Sondheim added later, sounded generally tight, with strong and dynamically sensitive vocals from MasterVoices; even the patter songs, aided by excellent amplification and sound design, held together well. This could not have been easy, with members of the full chorus positioned both onstage and on the high upstage tiers; Sperling’s artistic leadership and finesse deserve kudos.

Douglas Sills as Dionysos and Kevin Chamberlin, center, with dancers. MasterVoices presents The Frogs, Conducted and Directed by Ted Sperling. Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo Credit: Erin Baiano
Douglas Sills as Dionysos and Kevin Chamberlin, center, with dancers. MasterVoices presents The Frogs, Conducted and Directed by Ted Sperling. Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo Credit: Erin Baiano

A Battle of Wits

In Aristophanes play, Dionysus, the god of wine, drama and overall randiness and decadence, journeys to Hades. He gets there with the help of an egotistical Herakles (Marc Kudisch), and accompanied by his loyal wisecracking slave Xanthius (a sharp, jovial turn by Kevin Chamberlin). Dionysus intends to bring the recently deceased Euripides back to the land of the living, hoping the playwright can restore high-quality art to the world and thus rescue Athens from moral and cultural decay.

When he arrives he ends up judging a battle of arts and wits between Euripides and the reigning dead playwright of the underworld, Aeschylus. Aeschylus wins and Dionysus chooses to bring back him to life instead.

Burt Shevelove wrote the original book, which Lane expanded. In it Shevelove transformed the dueling dramatists into George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare. It was an interesting choice. Shakespeare remains in the popular zeitgeist to this day; but is Shaw any better known to today’s general public than Aeschylus and Euripides? Maybe to the Broadway cognoscenti.

Nathan Lane as the Host. MasterVoices presents The Frogs, Conducted and Directed by Ted Sperling. Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo Credit: Erin Baiano
Nathan Lane as the Host. MasterVoices presents The Frogs, Conducted and Directed by Ted Sperling. Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo Credit: Erin Baiano

Then again, it was 1974, and it was Yale – where, the story goes, those early performances took placein and around a real swimming pool, with then-students Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang in the Chorus.

No matter. Dylan Baker amusingly conveyed Shaw’s pompous intellectuality, and Jordan Donica staunchly embodied an appropriately comic-tragic Shakespeare. That was enough to convey the reason Dionysus chooses the Bard.

Romance in Hadestown

The show adds a female character to Aristophanes’ all-male lineup, which also included the River Styx ferryman Charon (here played with smooth-talking archness by Chuck Cooper). Ariadne, Dionysus’ long-dead mortal wife, logically enough turns up in Hades – and helps Dionysus make his decision. Candice Corbin, a member of the MasterVoices chamber chorus, played the singing-acting role with ethereal warmth.

As a combination concert performance and staged reading, the production had an easygoing informality that well suited the material. A fully staged revival of The Frogs may not be in the cards – only the Delphic oracle knows – but how much do we need one? The bliss of experiencing this rarely-heard music performed with precision and pizzazz by top talent – downstage, in the chorus, and in the pit – was enough.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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