VA Rep Children’s Theatre ‘Croaker – the Frog Prince Musical’ is a glammed-up retelling of a children’s classic
Read More: Alexander Saap, Debra Clinton, Geoffrey Morgan, Grenville Burgess, Jason Marks, Jeanne Nugent, Kathy Halenda, Mark Persinger, School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, Virginia Rep
Croaker, the Frog Prince Musical began life as a children’s musical play created by Debra Clinton and Jason Marks for the students at the School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (“SPARC”) where they were then employed. I saw it then. It was about the cutest thing I’d seen. The lyrics and book knowingly baser than the performers, making it tongue in cheek adorable.
For this “professionally produced” version, adults play the parts. The play and score have been “augmented” by cutting some scenes (I miss a lovely, awkward dinner scene) and adding much more material that fills an evening’s length of theatre and is far more suitable to adults than to children. It’s a different play with a different objective. In my words, it’s been “Disneyfied.”
The original version of Croaker successfully grounded itself in the moral that you may be a lowly green creature despised and misunderstood (frogs don’t really give you warts) but if you’re steadfast and morally good, you can defeat the forces of evil to find your true better self. That’s a lesson children would benefit from. Instead we now have cute songs about men doing what men do.
The moral is gone but added are jokes, razzmatazz dancing numbers and big, bright, colorful sets and costumes. Director Clinton is very skillful at keeping things going. Choreographer Clinton stages energetic, joyful dance numbers. Librettist/Lyricist Clinton peppers the script and songs with double entendres and witty cultural references. It’s like going to Disneyland. All fun all the time.
So of course the theatre friendly audience loved it. Like having been gorged on ice cream sundaes, the opening night crowd came into the lobby after final bows with sugar highs spouting “the best musical I’ve ever seen!” “Isn’t this great for Richmond!” Yes. It’s an enjoyable, funny, well produced show.
Not all children’s plays have to have a message. Some can be happy go lucky empty calorie extravaganzas. Is it children’s theatre because it’s based on a fairy tale or because it’s staged at a place that calls itself a “Children’s Theatre”? What do I know? Let’s say that even though AARP knows where I live, I am still raising teenagers so I know that kids are far more sophisticated now than when I was watching Andy of Mayberry.
The children in my audience were entertained. There are bright lights and colorful costumes and princesses. And of course frogs. They may not get all the jokes but they always have something to look at.
“The Frog Prince” is a cautionary tale told by the Brothers Grimm. It is the Princesses’ birthday. She is a spoiled rotten mean girl. Her mother has married the king so the princess can inherit. To achieve this, many years ago, the Queen cast a spell (with her Disney mean queen powers) upon the King’s natural born son turning him into a frog. As it happens the frog lives in the well on the royal castle grounds and is hit in the head by a golden ball the princess receives as a present from the King but throws down the well since it is not a Prius as she expected. Thus the frog and the Princess meet. The frog has froggy friends and the Princess has ladies in waiting (waiting for a date with a frog apparently). The girls fall for the frogs (!) except the Princess but one dark and stormy night at the “Kissing Ball” the Princess kisses her frog and you’ll never guess what happens. (SPOILER ALERT). Croaker the frog turns out to be the King’s son, Prince Luke, emerging as a human in beautiful velvet medieval clothing.
The denouement (theatrical resolution) cheats our sense of fulfilment in one way. There is no love story. Prince-princess step-sibling coupling is a no-no. We must be satisfied with “they all lived platonically ever after.”
The froggy friends do not change into humans for their maidens because, well, they were always only frogs. Ostensibly the mixed race couples are the ones who will live happily ever after. The Evil Queen is turned into a frog by the Princess (heretofore unaware of her Disney powers) and, captured in a jar, the Frog Queen is able to sing a froggy solo before the curtain falls. All very amusing.
Alexander Saap is a top of the line actor. He also turns out to be a wonderful singer. As Croaker the frog prince, he found very clever and interesting ways to bring his character to life. He gives Croaker a street wise patter that works well.
Christie Jackson as Princess Acrimona is beautiful and a lovely singer. She gives the mean girl role a whirl, but doesn’t quite dig deep enough into the nastiness that is required, making her character’s arc less of a journey.
Kathy Halenda plays Queen Helene and boy is she mean. Mean Queen Helene who steals every scene. Ms. Halenda is a force of nature. In Croaker she has a minor role, and still her performance is like “buttah.” Delicious. She kills her solos.
The ensemble of three froggy men (Austin Taylor Smith, Todd Patterson and Caleb Wade) and three ladies in waiting (Grey Garrett, Brianne Oltermann White and Cariel Hughes) worked very well as a singing and dancing troupe. Unfortunately with little to no lines, the only acting they get to do is reacting to lyrics which they do beautifully.
Mark Persinger is a fine character actor but as King Arnold, he has little chance to stand out playing straight man to Ms. Halenda. Geoffrey Morgan’s Page was energetic but hit and miss with his comic interludes.
The added material weighs down this very slight story to make an evening that is too long. Children don’t do well with intermissions.
There were some staging and technical issues. The pre-recorded music lacked warmth and the orchestrations seemed overly synthesized. Ms. Halenda’s Act One Finale was staged with her sitting at a table in the down-left stage corner leaving her back to half the audience (not that we couldn’t hear her). The prince’s “transformation” at the end of the play was a little clumsy and obvious. The set changes were sometimes not completed by the time the lights came up. A long run will fix most of that.
The songs are clever and tuneful if old fashioned and slightly derivative of both Disney and “Once Upon a Mattress.” Mr. Marks’ compositions ran the gamut of musical styles, but broke no new ground. Besides what I’ve already mentioned, Librettist/Lyricist Clinton’s work sometime seemed a little too pleased with its cleverness. One set up, in particular, brought the house down but you could see it coming from a mile away.
Jeanne Nugent’s costumes are amazing creations. Bold colors, beautiful pastel gowns, regal medieval garments and eclectic froggy costumes (so many aerial goggles I thought they might be fighting the Red Baron). Grenville Burgess’ set is colorful and bright if slightly monotonous with multi-colored bricks covering all the walls and set pieces. B.J. Wilkinson delivers a brilliant light show, very well done in bright primary colors that will keep the children’s attention while their parents crack up to the new material.
Perhaps I make too much out of this metamorphosis. Critics can be prickly and slightly officious. My moody 13-year-old daughter thought the play was funny and entertaining. Maybe I should leave that as the final say. But, then again maybe not. 13 year olds also like fart jokes.
As entertaining as a Las Vegas revue, this hybrid of a play wants to be everything. A children’s story that will amuse adults. Like most Disney now a days it makes commercial sense. I don’t begrudge Clinton and Marks their success but I miss the awkward, shy boy frog whom I rooted for many years ago. He’s all glammed up now. I wonder if he’s happy.
Croaker the Music runs through April 15 at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn.
The beauty of this production is that this new resonance is allowed to develop on its own without drawing attention to itself.September 23, 2016
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