The 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival “Frog Kiss”

“Frog Kiss”
The 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Theatre at St. Clement’s, New York, NY
October 4, 2010
Remaining Dates: October 6th, 10th, 11th and 13th

Hanley Smith and Curtis Holbrook, FROG KISS, NYMF 2010. Photo by Ellis Gaskell

“Frog Kiss”, a full musical production at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival, is easy to embrace; it is hard to imagine anything more fun or memorable stemming from this festival, which is showcasing 27 full productions—many in the Broadway Theatre District area. A perennial, familiar heartwarming tale of acceptance, it is the lyrics and assemblage of characters that bring us originality, as does this particular cast.

The unfortunate news about this musical is that—unlike the long run of “South Pacific”, which we reviewed recently—it runs a total of only 7 times. Hopefully a much longer run is destined for this production and cast, which has the type of chemistry that would make any stereotypically-happy prince and princess proud. All the singers have fun with the staging, lyrics and music, and the full-house audience was with them all the way.

The excellent music by Eric Schorr has some “Candide”-influenced scoring, some Blues and Swing, and some Rap thrown in to keep with the times. The book by Charles Leipart is based on the Stephen Mitchell novella, and his lyrics are immensely enjoyable: “…a league of nations gives a girl palpatations” or funny innuendo such as “…a long sticky tongue for God only knows” when referring to the frog. “Frog Kiss” seems to spoof everything from Jimmy Durante to “West Side Story” (the line “a frog like that” instead of Anita’s “A Boy Like That”); French, German, Chinese and British stereotypes –Andrew Cao is hysterical with his British–to hints of Mel Brooks (“Three Ball Monte”, a jivin’ number in full swing, seems to get its musical influence from “The Inquisition”, a number from Brooks’ film “History of the World Part I”).

The song “Attention”, with music reminiscent of the “Cell Block Tango” in “Chicago”, gets the audience’s full attention with a tour de force, sexy performance by the terrific Manna Nichols as Hortense.  The opening of Act II is a very original play within a play, as the Princess and the Frog’s courtship is mocked by Hortense and Claus. Nichols and Theis Weckesser (Claus) do a good job pretending to be bad actors.

Princess Clementine, performed by the supremely talented singer and actress Hanley Smith, meets a frog she is determined to turn into a prince, and in doing so, Smith brings a multi-dimensional character to the fore—a unique mix of dumb blonde and probing intellectual, confidence and awkwardness, a combination of pomposity and sincerity along the lines of Meg Ryan’s character in “When Harry Met Sally”. Her voice is always on pitch and lovely in all aspects of the Broadway and coloratura range. Weckesser brings German-stereotype hilarity to his role of Claus. His performance brought to mind Kenneth Mars’ portrayal of Franz Liebkind in the original Producers film of 1968, and indeed after reading his bio, I see that he was cast as a Nazi storm trooper in the recent film version of the musical.

Other standout performers include Terry Burrell in a quirky, snazzy performance of Queen Margot; Curtis Holbrook’s endearing, evocative, and limber rendering of the frog, and Joseph Dellger, with his performance as King Frederic, the father of the two quarreling sibling princesses. The Director Kenneth Roberson, who did the choreography for “Ave Q”, does wonders with the staging and the actors, bringing variety and continuity at the same time. Zane Mark’s band, visible to house right, is a musical treat, as are orchestrations by Daryl Waters. The sound amplification had occasional interference, and balances between singers and the band, which sometimes overpowered due to not being in a pit, weren’t quite right. The sets are customarily bare for this type of festival production, but like much of the suggestive material, one can use one’s imagination. The excellent reaction-acting gives you a lot to admire, as there is so much variety in each actor’s expression that you don’t know where to look when several people are on stage; everyone, in other words, is always in the moment. The costume design by Austin Sanderson is fun and creative, and the choreography by Lorna Ventura is inventive, making good use of the stage.

The final performances of this run are on October 6th at 5pm, October 10th at 7:30pm and October 11th at 1pm—plus extended to include October 13th at 1pm— at the Theater at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street. Don’t miss “Frog Kiss”.