Monday, 20 March 2017
Review The Frogs
Based on the play by Aristophanes
adapted by Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
The set by Gregor Donnelly on the bijou stage at the Jermyn Street Theatre boded well. A back wall of riveted burnished copper plates with brown tarpaulin-like rigging cum platform with a promising resemblance to trampolines.
But you know those park signs by manicured lawns admonishing "Do Not Tread On The Grass"? This is a musical which might as well have had a large sign stating, "Do Not Jump"!
For instead of amphibian lift off and innovation, we have a constricted stage and stories which feel unfinished. This is the version seen on Broadway in 2004 with Nathan Lane's post 9/11 and post Middle East military incursion adaptation of the late Burt Shevelove's book
We had to think long and hard about this one.
The Frogs was originally a scabrous comic piece, throwing satirical, anxious barbs at a failing Athenian wartime economy, written by Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes.
Here, the Greek God of drama and wine, Dionysos (Michael Matus), drags his slave Xanthias (George Rae with a passing resemblance via the glasses to a Scots' Harry Potter or George Burns - we couldn't decide which) across the River Styx down to Hades - the Greek version of Hell. The god has resolved to engineer the resurrection of a deceased writer on earth who can combat the complacency of the Athenian populace.
The history of this musical starts with Shevelove in 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbour bombings brought the United States into the Second World War. Shevelove, the director of Yale University Undergraduate Society, embarked on an ambitious project to mount the straight play in the swimming pool of the Payne-Whitney gymnasium at the Ivy League college. The Yale swimming team was entrusted with the task of bringing the eponymous frogs from page to pool.
Trampolines, swimming pools, whatever. Thirty three later, during the Vietnam War, a revival with five songs added by Stephen Sondheim, Shevelove's collaborator on the similarly ancient classics' sourced A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, fitted the artistic agenda of Yale's drama department.
Meanwhile a technical team tried their darndest to knock the enormous but acoustically-challenged pool into a suitable froggy den and the chorus this time included a young Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep and Christopher Durang.
Then over sixty years later than the original adaptation and after Shevelove's death in London, actor and stand-up Nathan Lane decided to take it out of the swimming pool on to the stage in the 2004 production. This included additional songs by Sondheim who had also been a schoolboy Latin and Greek scholar.
This version, despite an interesting set of lesser-known Sondheim songs, still feels it needs a larger more spectacular space to approach in any way the intended tone and mix. A confused book sadly feels more clod hopping than a graceful leap from 405 BC to 2004 AD.
We also struggled with the writers' duel, transposed already in 1941 by Shevelove from Aeschylus and Euripides to William Shakespeare (in the current production sweet-voiced Nigel Pilkington) and (a clean-shaven more resembling the late Christopher Hitchens!) Bernard Shaw (Martin Dickinson)
Shaw was still alive in 1941 and with GBS's highly dubious split assessment of Hitler's worth, Shevelove's choice of author might have meant a lot more then than now.
Still, as our magical book of incantations Wikipedia reminds us Shakes vs Shav was already a well-worn trope used by several writers. Eight years after the non-musical Yale production, shortly before his death, Shaw contributed his own version in the form of a marionette show. Now The Frogs as a puppet show, there's a thought ....!
Director Grace Wessels manages to keep this shaky vessel from capsizing even if sometimes this musical ship veers a little too near the rocks and it feels rather crowded on stage with the non trampolines.
Matus makes a quaintly diffident Dionysos, with an unmasked Wizard-of-Oz personality, except when he conducts turf, or rather lion's mane, wars with his slave.
Sliding into sly digs at actors' lives with Virilla the Amazon ((Li-Tong Hsu) taking on a whole new internet meaning, there are points of sparky contact with the audience but these are doused almost as soon as they light up.
Jonathan Wadey has characterful moments with Charon the spaced-out boatman and Aekos, an equally grungy gatekeeper. Meanwhile Chris McGuigan is good value as Dionysos's half brother Herakles.
But The Frogs feels as if it needs far more layered wit and followed-through intellectual rigour. Apparently the original 1941 script is either not extant or inaccessible, but maybe more excavating of original intent is needed to produce a successful 21st century book re-write.
But hey, this is really supposed to be about Sondheim and his music, isn't it? The five-piece band led by Tim Sutton on piano does a mostly superb job. It has to be said, however, there were some problems with the levels in the second half of the show after an impeccable first act.
Nevertheless, even if the songs themselves are certainly not entirely lacklustre, their place in a muddled book feels rather listless. There are glimpses of something rich and strange at brief moments but we did wonder whether there was also a large bit of padding with discarded offcuts of previous musicals.
Apparently the 1974 production was not a happy experience for Sondheim who, it's reported, found the head of Yale's drama department difficult to work with and we think it shows. In the end, we don't know if this piece can ever be a success without a spectacular setting, if it can succeed at all.
Better, we think, to find an equivalent of The Frogs rather than try to shoehorn a unique classical text into a Broadway musical format or, in the case of Nathan Lane's revision, a Don Quixote quest.
It's a lower range amber light from our own Mount Olympus for a valiant matchbox attempt to breathe new life into a flawed musical.