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BWW Review: Imagination Stage Serves Up Scrumptious Holiday Treat With A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD

Based on Arnold Lobel's children's books, the 2003 Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical, A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD, is the Imagination Stage season entry that is probably the most familiar, yet also the most unique. There have been several stagings of Willie and Robert Reale's adorably heartwarming musical in the Washington, DC area already, and one would certainly be hard-pressed to find a parent unfamiliar with the popular books. Yet, at the same time, it's also an exciting choice because it's a true Broadway musical featuring a diverse and sophisticated score that's a cut above what you might usually find in musicals geared toward children. This production also features several performers who have made names for themselves in the larger DC musical theatre world, a few of whom are making their Imagination Stage debuts.

The bottom line is that those familiar with Imagination Stage's high quality work will find a lot to love in this production, but adult fans of the likes of Tracy Lynn Olivera and Nova Y. Payton - who might not have trekked to the Bethesda-based theatre before - will be introduced to the theatrical magic that can take place on its stage.

As we meet Frog (Jobari Parker-Namdar) and Toad (Stephen Edwards Horst), winter is over and spring is here. The two opposites are ready to spend time together after the long winter. They're an unlikely match to be sure. Frog is usually more upbeat and encouraging, while Toad tends to worry a lot. They balance each other out. A series of incidents test their friendship and bring them closer together over the course of four seasons. Through it all, despite their differences, they remain there for one another to revel in the simple joy of baking cookies, celebrating Christmas, or lending a helping hand.

Director Colin Hovde has found the perfect match in his leading men, Jobari Parker-Namdar and Stephen Edwards Horst. The two men sing and dance up a storm, executing Rachel Leigh Dolan's peppy, often tap-filled, choreography with ease and energy, and display a very believable friendship. A highlight comes in the Act One closer, "Cookies." It captures the spirit of the duo's sweet friendship and who can resist a good musical theatre production number? "He'll Never Know," which comes early in the second act has a similar effect.

Parker-Namdar has been somewhat of a mainstay in musical theatre productions around town in recent years, and it's good to see him have the opportunity to tackle a leading role. Stephen Edwards Horst is a name that's likely less familiar to musical theatre junkies around town, but I look forward to seeing him in other musical theatre roles in the future.

Others make an impression as other animals that Frog and Toad meet on their various adventures. Tracy Lynn Olivera, probably best known for her multiple roles at Signature Theatre, portrays a snarky turtle (among other animals) in a way that's quite marvelous to watch ("Getta Loada Toad") if only to appreciate her versatility as an actress and singer. Likewise, in a departure from her usual roles that largely rely on her enormous voice, Nova Y. Payton brings something sweet and all-knowing to her characters, especially the mouse. Matt Dewberry takes on the important role of the snail that delivers mail - a key one in establishing the strong foundation of Frog and Toad's endearing friendship. "The Letter" has always been one of my favorite numbers in the show and Dewberry's rendition is entertaining and well-sung to say the least.

If I were to put forth one complaint it would be that when Olivera, Payton, and Dewberry are called upon to sing with one another, it's often hard to appreciate each of their lovely voices and the pleasant harmonies. This situation is most pronounced in the musical's title song, unfortunately. A better house sound mix might fix a situation of one voice (or sometimes two) overpowering the others. A beautiful harmonic blend is always something to appreciate.

Minimal mixing missteps aside, the technical elements are also first-rate. In particular, Andrew Cohen's set plays up the animal theme in a creative way, and Kendra Rai's colorful and detailed costumes add a layer on visual interest. The costume she has designed for the turtle is particularly creative.

All in all, this is a fun show for everyone, especially during this holiday season as we reflect upon those we love.

Running Time: 85 minutes, including one intermission.

A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD plays Imagination Stage - 4908 Auburn Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland - through January 10. For tickets, call the box office at 301-280-1660 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Margot Schulman (L-R: Tracy Lynn Olivera, Jobari Parker-Namdar, Stephen Edwards Horst, Matt Dewberry, and Nova Y. Payton)

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