Friday, November 10, 2023

The Frogs (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

Once again, conductor/director Ted Sperling and his MasterVoices forces, have triumphed with a Sondheim work, after their winning “Anyone Can Whistle” last year. “The Frogs” is an anomaly in Sondheim’s catalog, hardly a traditional musical, but more a choral piece, or so it was when first performed at Yale in 1974, and later recorded by Nonesuch, though the work was given more traditional structure in its 2004 production by Lincoln Center Theater. 

Nathan Lane, who starred in that Lincoln Center mounting, and hosted the MasterVoices semi-stage concert, in fact, had adapted Burt Shevelove’s original script (based on Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy) for that production, and Sondheim reworked and expanded the music. The result, as the MasterVoices presentation demonstrated, was alternately hilarious and profound.

For this past weekend’s three-performance run, the blue-chip cast members excelled in their respective roles. 

Douglas Sills took on Lane’s original part of Dionysos, the god of Theater and Wine, with distinction. In brief, Dionysus travels to Hades with his slave Xanthias (a funny Kevin Chamberlin) in order to bring George Bernard Shaw back to earth to help mankind. But after a competition between Shaw and Shakespeare (Eurpides and Aeschylus in the source material), the Bard’s poetic skill wins the day. Shaw was persuasively embodied by Dylan Baker who delivered a masterful recitation of one of St. Joan’s fervent speeches, while Jordan Donica offered a beautifully spoken Will Shakespeare and sang Sondheim’s moving setting of “Fear No More” gorgeously.

Marc Kudisch was in fine form as Dionysos’s preening half-brother Heracles (aka Hercules), flexing his muscles and, at one point, easing down into an impressive split. Chuck Cooper was most amusing as boatman Charon who rows the pair across the River Styx. And Peter Bartlett was a hoot recreating his 2004 role as the campiest of Plutos, delivering each line for maximum drollery. Candice Corbin had a brief but deeply moving turn as Dionysos’ late wife Ariadne. 

Lainie Sakakura devised some very apt choreography for the excellent dancers who played the eponymous frogs and Dionysian revelers. 

Though apart from the very funny “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience” (here updated with the inclusion of, among other annoyances, a cell phone admonition), none of the other numbers have gotten much stand-alone play. Still, every song in the show bears that treasurable Sondheim stamp, with unmistakable echoes of tunes from the better-known Sondheim classics.

Sperling’s conducting was expertly attuned to Sondheim’s musical language,  while the MasterVoices chorus sounded glorious, positioned, as they were, on three tiers. The whole enterprise made an even better case for the show than what I remembered seeing at the Vivian Beaumont 20 years ago.

The score, nicely varied, and at times as stirring as the great "Sunday" ensemble in “Sunday in the Park with George,” was a pleasure to hear, especially when performed so definitively. 

Lane’s narration, which began with a brief history of the show and his involvement in it, was expertly done, and never detracted but only enhanced the centerstage action. 

(Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center; 10 Columbus Circle;;; Nov. 3 & 4 only)

Photo by Erin Baiano: (l.-r.) Marc Kudisch, Kevin Chamberlin, and Douglas Sills

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