Let’s face it, even Shakespeare had a few bad days at the office, so it should come as no surprise that, among the masterpieces of Stephen Sondheim, there lie some green slimy things. Maybe it is a little uncharitable to remind the God of musical theatre of this during the week of his 87th Birthday.
The big surprise is that The Frogs premiered after Sondheim’s sophisticated hit A Little Night Music; a surprise because it has all the feel of a year-end revue by a bunch of Classics undergrads. This could be down to the fact that, in its early form, with a book by Burt Shevelove, the show did the rounds of universities, opening at Yale gymnasium in 1974, with Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the chorus. The version seen here has a new book by Nathan Lane, who starred in the first Broadway production in 2004. This is the UK premiere.
Freely adapted from a BC405 Greek comedy by Aristophanes, the story tells how the ranidaphobic God of Drama, Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his chirpy wee Scottish slave, Xanthias (George Rae) set off for Hades on a mission to retrieve George Bernard Shaw, eventually opting for William Shakespeare in preference. The journey is plodding, interrupted when Dionysos is kidnapped by frogs, and the second act, set in Hades, is much like Hell for the audience. Yes, it is all highly camp and hopping crazy and an infusion of topical gags raises more cringes than laughs.
With limited resources, director Grace Wessels does her best to give the show the kiss of life and she gets some lively performances, particularly from Rae, but turning amphibians into princes proves beyond their cumulative efforts. Gregor Donnelly’s set looks like a communal sauna and the cramped space feels like one, a company of nine plus four musicians filling the Jermyn Street stage to overflowing.
On the plus side, no show with songs by Sondheim can be completely worthless. The sparkling lyrics are unmistakably his, but the music has little distinction and the main interest comes from picking up chords that would recur in later shows (there’s a lot of Sweeney here). It is all as if Sondheim in the early 1970s was out to demonstrate the ridiculous theory that anything could be turned into a musical. It was to take him a few more years to prove that theory true.
Performance date: 25 March 2017