Singing and dancing animals in Eastern Mennonite University’s MainStage Theater? A fly fishing frog and toad, an Appalachian Trail-hiking snail and mining moles? A community of critters showing how delightful life can be when you have a best bud? What are those theater folks up to now?
The Tony-nominated Broadway musical “A Year with Frog and Toad” is based on author/illustrator Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” children’s book series. The musical, directed by professor Heidi Winters Vogel opens Nov. 20. Additional performances are Nov. 21 and Dec. 3, 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Nov. 22 and Dec. 5 at 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased through the EMU box office at 540-432-4582 or emu.edu/box-office/.
“Our production is set here in the Shenandoah Valley and the animals are the kind you would find in the woods and ditches right here in western Virginia,” says Vogel. Her vision was to have the actors portray human characters with animal qualities instead of being in animal costumes. “The actors have studied the way the animals move and are using that in their portrayals. Also, the characters reflect folks you might meet here too.”
For history major Derrick Turner, assistant director and dramaturg, the show brings back memories. “I loved those books. My mom read them to me when I was a child.”
To spark the actors’ imaginations, Turner conducted extensive research with EMU professor and conservation photographer Steven Johnson. He then compiled movement videos and information on each portrayed animal for the actors, including habitat, food and skeletal structures.
EMU hasn’t done a children’s play in at least a decade, Vogel says, but the play meets the theater department‘s educational goals. “Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) is a hugely important genre of theater that our students should have experience performing and producing. Children are a different audience than adults.”
The cast will perform three additional matinees for students from six local schools and three home school groups, says Turner, who made study packets accessible for K-5 grades.
“Adults are much more well-behaved, but I find performing for children is a much more interactive experience,” says actor Josh Helmuth, a music composition major who performed for elementary students while in high school.
Helmuth portrays four animals, including a showy bird and a straight and narrow lizard. “Yeah, I don’t get a break,” he says, smiling.
Playing animals has never been a favorite role for English and theater double-major Makayla Baker. “I don’t like when people portray animals. It’s so weird. But here I am—I’m a turtle,” she deadpans. “But it’s been great.”
Baker’s turtle is a laundry woman carrying a basket on her back and a scrub board around her neck.
Myriam Aziz, a graduate student in the master’s conflict transformation program, was cast as Frog. “A female playing a part for a male, I think that’s really funny,” says Aziz, who is active in theater in Lebanon. But having a male as a pal, she says, “reminds me of my friend back home. We’ve been friends for 13 years.”
The cast and crew agree that even though “A Year With Frog and Toad” is based on a children’s book series, adults will also appreciate the cheerful upbeat musical.
“There’s a lot of comedic effect in it,” Helmuth says.
“It is funny,” says Baker, noting that the EMU community is inviting younger family members and people from their church to the show. “A lot of EMU students were raised on these books.”
Myriam Aziz, Christian Parks, Ezrionna Prioleau, Bianica Baker, Esther Ajayi, Josh Helmuth, Makayla Baker, Zoe Parakuo, Hailey Holcomb
Director – Heidi Winters Vogel
Choreographer and Costume Designer – Holly Labbe
Accompanist – Jim Clemens
Stage Manager – Caitlin Randazzo
Assistant Stage Managers – Lydia Hales and Belen Fernandez
Props Designers – Alex Rosenberg and Kevin Clark
Assistant Lighting Designer – Sierra Comer
Assistant Director and Dramaturg – Derrick Turner
Music Director – Matt Hunsberger
Set Designer – Phil Grayson
Lighting Designer – David Vogel