This The Frogs is a five-star production of what ends up as a four-star musical. Given its rarity of performance it really is a must-see, not just for die-hard supporters of the composer, but for anyone with a serious interest musical theatre and its history. It is very much a piece for our times, with the fizzing, wry humour running in counterpoint with some deep thoughts on how and how far the creative arts can save us from ourselves.
Bring a sense of purpose, Bring the taste of words, Bring the sound of wit, Bring the feel of passion, Bring the glow of thought, To the darkening earth.
This musical is very much an outlier and oddity within Sondheim’s output. It originated in a 1974 commission to rework the classic Athenian comedy by Aristophanes as musical with a text supplied by Burt Shevelove. It received one fairly disastrous outing in a swimming pool at Yale, and was only revived in 2004 under the prompting of Nathan Lane who was even freer in his adaptation and development of the dialogue. At this point it grew to a full length work arguably at some variance to original dimensions and intentions.
The production now playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre is its first performance in the UK. As a result of the revisions and expansion it is also a musical mélange, with jaunty, carefree, playful numbers in the early manner of the first collaboration between Sondheim and Shevelove: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. However, it is interspersed with darker and deeper solo numbers that try to speak to a similar range of creative dilemmas to those examined in Sunday in the Park with George.
The plot is slight and fanciful. Dionysos (Michael Matus), god of wine and theatre, accompanied by his slave Xanthias (George Rae), travel to Hades in order to persuade Pluto, lord of the underworld, to allow Bernard Shaw to return to the world to use reason and social consciousness to combat the corruption and fakery of politicians. Along the way they have encounters with Herakles (Chris McGuigan), whose identity Dionysos assumes, acerbic Charon (Jonathan Wadey) who ferries them to their destination, a chorus of Frogs who attack the boat, and then finally the larger-than-life denizens of Hades.
The drama culminates in a contest between Shaw (Martin Dickinson) and Shakespeare (Nigel Pilkington) over which of the two has more to offer the world above, which the latter ‘wins’. Words have to have the poetic feeling and force to persuade whereas pure reason alone is never enough.
There is a lot of larking about and quick-fire verbal wit in the manner of ‘Forum’, and several carefully crafted attempts to bring in the audience on the fun, including the splendid opening number, which could stand on its own as a litany of advice on how a modern audience should, or rather should not, behave. But unlike ‘Forum’, where there is ‘nothing of Gods, nothing of Greeks’, and ‘weighty affairs will just have to wait’, in the long second act there is a serious meditation on the ways in which art can and should enlighten and enliven the miseries of life.
There are some very fine songs here, all added in 2004 revival, which should be much better known than they are, and serve to give the lie to the notion that after ‘Into the Woods’, Sondheim has had little more to say.
However, experience of the whole work does leave a sense of inconsistent tone to the piece and a lingering unease as to whether such a frail skiff can stay afloat when freighted with such ponderous baggage.
That said, the production itself is a triumph that mostly banishes such concerns to the fringes of the mind. The theatre is a tiny space in which to set a musical with a live band as well, but director Grace Wessels and designer Gregor Donnelly have achieved it here in a way that combines economy and fluency. They have sensibly kept the set to a minimum – a pattern of platforms that leaves as much space as possible for dancing and movement, and some ingenious tarpaulin flaps to give a sense of Charon’s boat.
This is a musical with lots of quick costume changes for the cast, and Donnelly again deserves credit for devising a wardrobe that had glitz and sheen and grunge as needed, all achieved with economy of gesture.. a mask here, a bow or ruff there, and very much in the symbolic, stripped-down manner of original Greek theatre practice.
The cast perform as a well-integrated ensemble – everyone has important solo moments, but most also double up as members of the chorus, who, as in any Ancient Greek play, are both agents and commentators on the action. Whether as aggressive frogs, lounge-lizard Dionysians or party-goers in Hades they perform with flair and pizazz; and then as soloists they plausibly emerge from the broader texture for more soulful or strident moments. Clearly everyone is having a ball in performing this piece and the brio transfers to the audience palpably.
The four-piece band under the direction of Tim Sutton at the keyboard did full justice to the score: with Adam Bishop on three different wind instruments, Oliver Carey on Trumpet and Flugelhorn and Sarah Bowler on cello there was a good variety of timbres and tone which helped to pick out the sometimes complex contrapuntal aspects of the original writing as well as provided solid support and heft in the concerted numbers.
As the leads, Matus and Rae were well matched in manner and humour, something of a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza combination. Both sing well, though it is a bit of a pity that we do not see more of Xanthias in the second half where the zany humour in the role could easily have leavened the sombre texture of much of the material. Both players stay on the right of character as opposed to caricature and move with grace and invention in the confined space.
The solo spots for other characters were all well taken and are too numerous to record in detail here. Four stood out in quality and technical bravura. McGuigan’s bluff and buff Herakles extracted the maximum of testosterone alongside very stylish and beautiful singing. Wadey’s sleazy and spaced-out Charon was a delight to watch not least for his detailed acting off the speech, and Emma Ralston made the very most of her leather-clad, riding-crop-brandishing role as Pluto. Nigel Pilkington’s Shakespeare was neatly understated, and he delivered an exquisitely refined performance of Sondheim’s setting of ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’, a version that really deserves to be much better known.
This is a five-star production of what ends up as a four-star musical. Given its rarity of performance it really is a must-see, not just for die-hard supporters of the composer, but for anyone with a serious interest musical theatre and its history. It is very much a piece for our times, with the fizzing, wry humour running in counterpoint with some deep thoughts on how and how far the creative arts can save us from ourselves.