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New York City Theater

"The Frogs"
Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center

Artistically, "Frogs" is a mixed bag, displaying, as it does, notable talents but disappointing results. On the plus side are the elaborate sets, dazzling costumes and delicious performances, but, on the minus side, are humdrum tunes and ho-hum choreography. Can this be the work of Aristophanes, Stephen Sondheim, Susan Stroman, and Nathan Lane, each a time-tested star in his/her own right? Aristophanes' comedies rocked classic Greece, while Sondheim's music and lyrics, Stroman's choreography, and Lane's performances have had an equal effect on the modern Broadway musical.

Stars, all of them, in other times and places, but not this time, though the effort is undeniably earnest, undeniably big time. There's something for every one in this spectacle at the Vivian Beaumont-gags, girls, contrast, color, and plenty of vaudeville shtick. It's comedy tonight.

But amid all its goofiness (highlighting Lane's comic antics as Dionysos, the god of drama), there is a strong message. The audience is exhorted to think, perceive, and become political activists. Do not give in to the "frogs," which represent our rulers. Do not give in to fear, lethargy, despair.

The story, which provides the vehicle for these sentiments, is a mix of then and now, Aristophanes and the 21st century. Dionysos, disgusted with the present mess of the world, as he sees it, travels to Hades. He will bring back George Bernard Shaw to write another brilliant play, bringing mankind to its senses. But the road to Hell is not easy, and Dionysos disguises himself as Herakles to overcome barriers (including the terrifying frogs, villains of the piece). Dionysos travels with his slave/companion Xanthias (the admirable Roger Bart), which allows for plenty of comic dialogue en route. It's Nathan Lane playing Nathan Lane (a plus for all his fans). Other performers who make the show worth seeing are Peter Bartlett as Pluto, John Byner as Aeakos, and Daniel Davis and Michael Siberry as Shaw and Shakespeare respectively.

The trip allows for many striking scene changes, testing the estimable design team (Giles Cadle-set, (William Ivey Long--costumes, Kenneth Posner--lighting) to their limits. But Stroman's big production numbers rarely rise to the occasion, and Sondheim's tunes, this time around, are less than memorable.

The result, both good and bad, brings to mind numerous other Broadway shows. But that's what the joke is about. "Frogs" is deliberately derivative-suggesting that Forbidden Broadway (the annual spoof of Broadway shows) has taken over Lincoln Center! Aristophanes may have been the original inspiration, but "Frogs" owes much more to the White Way. That boat ride to Hades evokes the underground trip of "The Phantom of the Opera," the lovelies swinging earthward in silken drapes recall "Nine," the bungie jumps are right out of "Swing," and Nathan Lane emulates Herakles as he did in the film "Le Cage Aux Folles." In short, "Frogs" laughs at itself as much as it urges its audience to do likewise.

While there is much to admire about "Frogs," including its admirable message, its failings are all too evident, particularly in a big, ambitious undertaking of this nature.

-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 5, 2004

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