“Gods of the theatre, smile on us”
No matter the star quality of the names associated with The Frogs – Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver were in the original student company who performed it in a Yale swimming pool in 1974, Nathan Lane was one of the co-writers who expanded it for a Broadway run in 2004 – but there’s no escaping the fact that it is one of Sondheim’s rarely performed musicals. It’s a descriptor that rightly causes a deal of trepidation – more often than not there’s a good reason that works collect dust on the shelf and the hunt for worthy rediscoveries only rarely turns up a diamond.
Another way of looking at it is that you need to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince and if this isn’t an outright amphibian, it’s also by no means royalty. Loosely based on a 405 BC play by Aristophanes but sending up Greek comedy at the same, we follow Michael Matus’ Dionysos and his slave Xanthias, played by George Rae, as they journey to Hades to find someone who can “enlighten the easily misled and coerced masses of Earth”. They light on George Bernard Shaw as a saviour but Shakespeare has something to say about it, as do Herakles, Charon, Pluto and a chorus of frogs…
Grace Wessels’ production is supremely well cast – Matus and Rae are great fun, Martin Dickinson and Nigel Pilkington provide good value for money as the literary titans, and Li-Tong Hsu stands out in the company. But for a musical comedy, I didn’t find either Burt Shevelove’s original book or Lane’s adaptations particularly funny and Sondheim’s songs just aren’t up to the same mark as the majority of his canon. Which leaves The Frogs as a slightly flat experience, no matter how committed the acting and singing of this talented group, one for Sondheim completists to tick off the list and not rush to see again.
A final note – there’s a most egregious lack of blocking at one point where Charon’s boat is concerned, which completely ignores the audience members who are sitting in the side bank of seats. The Jermyn Street may be a peculiarly shaped space but that is no excuse for finding ways to work with it.