Ready to hop into its first musical in more than five years, SBU Theater's production of A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD directed by Ed. Simone opens Wednesday evening at the Rigas Family Theater at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts.
Simone, director of the theater program, chose the lighthearted, family-friendly musical by Robert and Willie Reale after listening to the original cast album and reminiscing about Arnold Lobel's children's books.
"It's a lovely musicalization of some books that were very popular when I was growing up," Simone said. "There were some really charming and delightful characters that were created for those Frog and Toad books, so it's nice to see them brought to life this way."
Simone said the characters themselves also influenced him to choose the show.
"Frog and Toad are complex - they're good characters," he said. "Even though there's silliness and frivolity, they're complicated people/amphibians. I like having that layer to it."
The silliness and theatrical quality inspired a vaudeville approach to the show's design, according to senior Emily West, costume designer and wardrobe mistress for the production.
"When we were discussing Frog and Toad, that presentational, campy style idea came up with the show," West said. "We went with the idea that if (the show has) that quality to it anyway, why not just push it?"
Production designer and associate professor of theater, Becky Misenheimer, noted the specific theatrical and vaudeville influences on the show.
"We are using swags of fabric framing the stage and the orchestra is in clear view right on the stage," Misenheimer said. "When it snows, we've made a bunch of paper snowflakes that'll fly in from overhead. We're also using the old style of waves as a ground-row that moves in for when they go swimming."
Misenheimer said the original children's books provided a colorful source of inspiration for the design.
"The color palette is very much out of the original illustrations from the book. Very earthy - browns and greens and oranges and such," she said. "When we're in Toad's kitchen, we fly in a wall that gives us his oven and his kitchen counter painted on in a very illustrative style."
Compared to other shows she has designed, Misenheimer also mentioned how the theatricality of the show allows her to really play with the different elements of the show's style.
"It's fun to take fabric and sculpt snow to make a hill they can go sledding on. We even got to put wheels on a sled," she said. "Figuring out how to turn humans into turtles, squirrels and frogs and getting to know the individual animals has been fun, too."
Simone enjoys the design because he said it allows the cast to interpret the characters and story even more freely than with just the book and music.
"You can then apply that kind of showbiz aesthetic to it," Simone said. "That means you can do feathered hats for the birds and put Toad in a hideous 1920's bathing suit for 'Toad Looks Funny in a Bathing Suit.' To do stuff with it - tuxes, vests if you want."
While the fragmented approach to rehearsing a musical, such as learning choreography, music, lines and gradually adding props and costumes, provided some challenges, Simone said watching it all come together is his favorite part.
"It's fun to watch people do bits of choreography because it's all new to them," Simone said. "Everyone is having a good time with it. It's a little bit of a break to focus on these things - to focus on birds and turtles and frogs and cookies. It's fun trying to make people look like they're gobbling cookies while singing a very complicated song."
Besides directing his first musical in six years, Simone mentioned what makes working on A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD different is the light nature of the piece, contrasting the emotionally heavy plays SBU Theater produced last semester.
"What's different is the energies of the cast and crew - the designers, the stage management team - their energy is very positive and very up," he said. "Everybody is kind of lifting everybody else up. People come to rehearsal laughing and smiling, and they leave that way, too"