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Everday wonders: broadway-style magic meets children's theatre in two Minneapolis premieres. (Critic's Notebook).

Growing up in Brooklyn, scenic designer Adrianne Lobel often despaired at the quality of children's theatre available in New York. "I remember being six years old and embarrassed for the people onstage," Lobel recalls. "But at the same time, I loved adult theatre. I eventually decided that the main thing to keep in mind when doing children's theatre is that there couldn't be any condescension."

Lobel's sensitivity to the intelligence of children's entertainment is something of a legacy: Her father, Arnold Lobel, was the author of, among other works, the canonical Frog and Toad children's books. It was also much in evidence in her designs for the recent Children's Theatre Company production of A Year with Frog and Toad, one of two premieres that found the venerable Minneapolis company stretching its artistic metier. The other CTC debut was A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, based on a tale for children by Gabriel Garcia Marquez from his 1995 collection Leaf Storm and Other Stories.

Instead of simply transposing her father's limpid, whimsical illustrations from page to stage, Lobel created a miniaturized Edwardian habitat for the story's amiable anthropomorphic amphibians. Giant flowers and cattails painted on the backdrop emphasized the lilliputian scale of the play's world, while Tony-winning designer Martin Pakledinaz's costumes--plumed finery for a chorus of migrating birds, for instance--gave it an elegant gilding.

Literally and figuratively, Frog and Toad was musical theatre writ small. Like Lobel's books, the play evolved as a series of short episodes devoted to the joys of cookie-eating and comfortably frayed friendship. Which isn't to say that Frog and Toad was merely kid's stuff. Both the book by Willie Reale and music by Robert Reale referenced Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. In one scene, a snail commissioned with delivering a letter ("I put the 'go' in escargot") turned a westernthemed tune into a perfect parody of Ethel Merman. Likewise, the svelte, dapper Frog (played by Jay Goede) and the bug-eyed, nervous Toad (played by Lobel's husband Mark Linn-Baker) were envisioned as a classic vaudeville odd-couple. In their tap duets, the two recalled nothing so much as Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

With all these echoes, it was no surprise that Frog and Toad itself had Broadway aspirations: Immediately after closing in Minneapolis, the show moved to the New Victory Theatre in New York City, across the street from Disney's perpetually running The Lion King. The first such transfer in GTC's history, the arrangement was surely calculated to augment the company's national profile. In fact, with its creative team (Lobel, Pakledinaz and the director, David Petrarca, are all Broadway veterans) and its smooth professional sheen, Frog and Toad seemed to bid adieu to the Midwest almost before the curtain dropped. Beneath the jazzy frolicking, at least one local critic felt the chill of commercialism.

Still, as Lobel noted, given the challenges of mounting a new children's musical--especially one not bankrolled by Disney--Frog and Toad might never have made it to the stage without CTC. "This is regional theatre like it used to be," Lobel said. "We simply couldn't have done this anywhere else."

RUNNING IN REPERTORY WITH FROG and Toad, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, adapted by Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz, had a no-less-distinguished literary pedigree. Here the source is Nobel Prize--winner Garcia Marquez's much-anthologized short story about a mysterious winged stranger who turns up in a poor seaside village, whereupon he is imprisoned in a chicken coop and exhibited by the villagers as a sideshow freak.

In translating the Columbian writer's fabliau to the stage, CTC faced the considerable challenge of creating a visual equivalent to his inimitable magical realism. Perhaps even more daunting, though, is that, although written expressly for children, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings comprises a mordant, sophisticated critique of Colombian provincialism, which might easily have sailed over the heads of a younger audience. In Garcia Marquez's parable, the angel is less a wayward celestial traveler than a tabula rasa onto which the villagers project their acute want. (The writer made the angel's ordinariness explicit in a 1988 film version of the story, on which he collaborated with Argentine director Fernando Birri.)

Cruz's adaptation for CTC wisely smoothed away some of the story's ambiguity. Here, the angel, played by Gerald Drake, was a mute, benevolent figure rather than a Kafkaesque cipher. The focus on the angel's miraculous quality gave Cruz's retelling of the story a distinctly Catholic cast. "When I read it as a teenager I remember thinking it was an extremely Christian story," the playwright explained in an interview. "The angel isn't recognized by the community; he's completely abused. In a way, it's a retelling of the Christ story."

In keeping with this ethos, Cruz's adaptation was somewhat more sympathetic to the villagers than Garcia Marquez's original. Indeed, the key line in Cruz's script might be this question, posed by one of the poor cocoa farmers who supplicates himself before the angel: "Why is it that the poor get the dregs of heaven?" In this post-colonialist interpretation, the villagers' rapacious cruelty toward their heaven-sent guest was a function of material and spiritual impoverishment.

One of Cruz's earlier plays, Night Train to Bolina, is told from the point of view of young people living in the shadow of Latin American sectarian violence. A Very Old Man, too, is seen primarily through the eyes of children: In this adaptation, unlike Garcia Marquez's original story, the angel is discovered and cared for by two youngsters (played by Nathan Barlow and Sonja Parks). In addition to emphasizing the story's Christian undertones--"Let the children come to me...for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven," as Matthew 19:14 puts it--Cruz's protagonists provide a point of entry for young audiences who might otherwise have been put off by the play's unfamiliar milieu.

Likewise, CTC's production traded in Garcia Marquez's cultural specificity for a broader pan-Latin American flavor. The music, by CTC resident composer Victor Zupanc, mixed Caribbean, Yoruban and Brazilian rhythms to good effect. Director Graciela Daniele's choreography sampled styles from samba to salsa--along with one playful allusion to her work with Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett.

The particular delight of reading Garcia Marquez is the frisson generated by his juxtaposition of the mundane and the miraculous. Wonders are treated as everyday occurrences, and everyday life is, in turn, elevated into something wondrous. CTC's own brand of magical realism, used to accent rather than define the play's thematic thrust, is expressed in a few skillfully deployed effects: an actor, meant to symbolize the moon, drifting high above the stage on a bicycle; a "spider-woman" with extra arms and legs sprouting from her back; and shadow puppetry played out on a scrim that resembled a Japanese screen painting.

If CTC's production didn't always match the peculiar poetry of Garcia Marquez's images--which are, perhaps, most vivid because they are left to the imagination--A Very Old Man did come close to capturing the writer's spirit, positing a world in which magic and truth need not be mutually exclusive--indeed, in which they are concurrent. And what better definition of the theatre to offer young audiences?

Peter Ritter, a former American Theatre Affiliated Writer, is on the staff of City Pages in Minneapolis.
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Title Annotation:A Very Old Man; A Year with Frog and Toad
Author:Ritter, Peter
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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