The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings






Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants









Free Updates
Writing for Us

Nathan Lane & Roger Bart
Nathan Lane & Roger Bart
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Lincoln Center Theater's production of The Frogs, while currently billed as "a new musical," is a familiar (yet, by contrast, rarely seen) product to many theater aficionados, given the eminence of original author Aristophanes in the history of comedy and perhaps even more so its composer Stephen Sondheim in the field of musicals. Burt Shevelove first "freely adapted" the ancient property (from 405 B.C.) more than 60 years ago, and in 1974 was drawn to it again, t hen persuading the already famous Sondheim, his colleague from the immensely successful A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, to write some songs for a Yale Drama School production set in the university swimming pool. That production was both short and short-lived, perhaps more an event than a play, and certainly less than a full musical. Only now, following a concert version of the Yale material as part of a recent birthday tribute to Sondheim, has the project reached an ongoing New York audience. (I nearly wrote "a commercial New York audience," but let's not forget that not-for-profit organizations like Lincoln Center don't play with nearly the same cards as do commercial producers.)

The current version of The Frogs is a rather different beast from what, by all reports, was seen at Yale long ago. Shevelove's book has been "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane, who also stars as Dionysos, god of the theater (and god of wine as well). Sondheim, now approximately a theater god himself, was persuaded to add a few character songs to the mostly choral material he created for Yale. The swimming pool idea was scrapped, for the frogs are merely chorus members and are not central to the play's action, although Dionysos does embark on a journey to the underworld via the River Styx.

Replacing the pool is rather elaborate and imaginative use of technological gimmickry including swings, eye-popping fire tricks, and sheet-like fabric suspended for acrobatic allure. At times designer Giles Cadle's adaptation of the Vivian Beaumont stage looks like a home for Cirque de Soleil or a Las Vegas super-spectacle.

The first half hour is great fun. Lane's performance starts as one of his best. As his slave Xanthias, Roger Bart is remarkable in being fresh and amusing, never venturing into annoying scene-stealing territory to upset Lane's so-called half-god. The performance begins with the two of them engaging in brisk topical banter. Audience admonishments involving cell phones and candy wrappers are predictable, but are fresh and funny nevertheless.

True to Aristophanes is the generous inclusion of political barbs. Expect a gentler version of Dubya-bashing than Michael Moore's. In an early example, our theatrical demigod inquires, "Have you listened to our leaders? Words seem to fail them, even the simple words." While the contemporary application of satire is welcomed by the local partisan audience, the overall style of the duo's performances owes more to vaudeville teams of nearly a century ago than to current political satire.

The ample thrust stage is very helpful to the repartee shared with the audience before the stage clowns actually assume their Athenian characterizations. Supported by a traditional masked Greek chorus for the joking "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" as well as the equally playful "I Love to Travel," Messrs. Lane and Bart successfully launch the evening onto what appears to be a both giddy and satirical path.

The supporting characters are equally well cast, with Burke Moses as muscleman Herakles and Peter Bartlett as fey but genial host Pluto producing the most fun. Excellent also is John Byner as both gondolier driver and doorman to hell, as are two actors whose sublime diction is appropriately worn on their sleeves, Daniel Davis as G.B. Shaw and Michael Siberry as William Shakespeare. They participate in a verbal competition, styled after a university debate, that takes the cleverness of the play's final third to a considerably more cerebral level.

Dionysos decides to explore the underworld in the guise of the more persuasive Herakles by employing a disguise that is a winking salute to The Lion King. His mission is to bring back to earth an extraordinary writer of the past who, through wit and wisdom, can save mankind from self-destruction. Unfortunately, soon after this business is undertaken, the work reveals a sagging center, apparent even before the intermission.

Prior to the sag, many in the audience may have felt they were attending A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Underworld. But as the tone turns drier, the material becomes more predictable and the language more declamatory. Dionysos's sung romantic lament to "Ariadne" falls quite flat (even the dialogue immediately following the song admits at much), and a title tune offers little more than an excuse for the choreographer side of spectacular stager Susan Stroman to show off her tricks. Worse, hardly any of the song's lyrics are audible through the busy action, even in the best seats.

No doubt many viewers are thinking of these wildly jumping frogs as amphibious variations on Cats. Ending the act is a much more enjoyable theatrical in-joke which involves a giant carnivorous frog and recalls the current revival of Little Shop of Horrors. And because many Sondheim fans will attend The Frogs regardless of press response, they should be on the lookout for the composer's rather charming Act II tribute to My Fair Lady, the musical that probably maintains Shaw's status as a literary guru more than any of his own plays.

The deflation of spirit unfortunately continues even more forcefully in a much too long Act II, set primarily in Hades. Of the several musical items in this act, only "Hades," as ebulliently sung by host Pluto (and "the hellraisers"), fully returns the show to the genuine high spirits of musical comedy, effectively employing Sondheim's quintessential use of internal rhyme, as does the show's opening music. Shakespeare's brief musical turn, "Fear No More"(set to a verse from Cymbeline) also is effective in a very minor key, but much of the rest of the act is tiresome and over-inflated, especially the processional and fanfare bits, which by their third outing wear out their welcome.

In summary, one wishes that the expansion of the work developed at Yale in 1974 had encountered more caution and editing, for the final muddy results weaken the best efforts of all involved. As long as the journey was to the great beyond, perhaps esteemed show doctors like George Abbott or Jerome Robbins should have been sought out along with classic playwrights Shakespeare and Shaw. The absence of such talent at dramaturgical shaping is regrettable.

The Frogs
Author: Aristophanes Adapted by Burt Shevelove, and more freely adapted by Nathan Lane Music/Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director/Choreographer: Susan Stroman
Cast: Nathan Lane (Dionysos), Roger Bart (Xanthias), Burke Moses (Herakles), John Byner (Charon/Aeakos), Peter Bartlett (Pluto), Daniel Davis (George Bernard Shaw) and Michael Siberry (William Shakespeare); also Ryan L. Ball, James Brown III, Bryn Dowling, Rebecca Eichenberger, Meg Gillentine, Eric Michael Gillett, Pia C. Glenn, Timothy Gulan, Tyler Hanes, Francesca Harper, Rod Harrelson, Jessica Howard, Naomi Kakuk, Kenway Hon Wai K. Kua, Luke Longacre, David Lowestein, Joanne Manning, Burke Moses, Mia Price, Kathy Voytko, Steve Wilson, Jay Brian Winnick.
Musical direction by Paul Gemignani
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Dance music arrangements by Glen Kelly.
Set Design: Giles Cadle
Costume Design: William Ivey Long
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer
Aerial Design: AntiGravity
Special Effects: Gregory Meeh
Puppet Design: Martin P. Robinson
Orchestra: Conductor/Paul Gemignani; Associate Conductor/AnnBritt duChatteau ; Assistant Conductor/ Thad Wheeler; Concertmistress/Marilynn Reynolds; Violin/Mineko Jajima; Viola/ Richard Brice; Cello/Deborah Sepe; First Clarinet/Les Scott; Second Clarinet/Eric Weidman; First Bassoon/ Tom Sefcovic; Second Bassoon/Gili Sharett; First Trumpet/Derasse; Second Trumpet/Phil Granger; First Trombone/Richard Clark; Second Trombone/Mike Boschen; : Bass Trombone/Dean Plank; Piano/ AnnBritt duChatteau; Harp/Jennifer Hoult; Bass/John Beal; Drums and Percussion/Paul Pizzuti; Percussion/Thad Wheeler
Running time: 2 1/2 hours including a 15-minute intermission.
Lincoln Center/Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, 212/239-6200
Schedule: Monday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM. Beginning September 6: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM.
Okay for kids 10 and up.
Viewed by Brad Bradley at the August 11, 2004 evening performance.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prologue: Invocation and Instructions to the Audience/1st Actor, 2nd Actor, Greek Chorus
  • I Love to Travel/ Dionysos, Xanthias, Greek Chorus
  • Dress Big/Herakles, Dionysos, Xanthias
  • I Love to Travel/Dionysos, Xanthias
  • *All Aboard/ Charon
  • Ariadne/Dionysos
  • The Frogs/Dionysos, A Splash of Frogs, Fire Belly Bouncing Frogs
Act Two
  • Hymn to Dionysos/3 Graces, Dionysians, Dionysos, Xanthia
  • Hades/Pluto & The Hellraisers
  • It's Only a Play/Greek Chorus
  • *Shaw/Dionysos, Shaw, Shavians
  • *All Aboard/Charon
  • *Fear No More/Shakespeare
  • Hymn to Dionysos/Greek Chorus
  • * from Shakespeare's Cymbeline.
tales from shakespeare
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
Our Review

Mendes at the Donmar
Our Review

At This Theater Cover
At This Theater

Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide

Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam

metaphors dictionary cover
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.

The Broadway Theatre Archive


©Copyright 2004, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from