Encore Michigan

Funny ‘Frogs’ at Slipstream

Review September 14, 2019 Patrice Nolan

FERNDALE, Mich.— Slipstream Theatre Initiative wraps up its season with an exuberant production of The Frogs. As suggested in the play’s opening ‘invocation and instructions to the audience,’ this is a thoroughly modern play set in contemporary ancient Greece. Right. Here’s a little background…

In 405 BC, Aristophanes’ outrageous comedy, The Frogs, received its first production and was critically acclaimed. It’s uncertain how many productions and adaptations were staged across the centuries, but in 1974 it was given new life by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove with an impressive cast of soon-to-be superstars. Fifteen years later, Nathan Lane became enamored with the script, secured some new music from Sondheim, and added some of his own campy humor and sharp wit.

Now, the gang at Slipstream Theatre Initiative is having at it, under the direction of Luna Alexander. This production demands that no one gets out of the building without having a good time, so check your social reserve at the door. The Frogs is smart, silly, and often spontaneous. And thanks to Sondheim, it has some pretty nifty music, too.

The premise, true to Aristophanes’ own plot, is calculated to endear theatre fans. Basically, Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre, is dismayed about the state of affairs in Athens. The people are demoralized. The leadership is apathetic and corrupt. Violence and foreign war are robbing them of their youth. (Do you sniff timeless themes yet?) And the solution is — inspirational theatre. So, Dionysus, accompanied by his loyal slave and intellectual superior, Xanthius, decides to go to the underworld to bring back George Bernard Shaw.

First they visit Dionysus’ half-brother Herakles to glean any tips about how to make it to the underworld and back without actually dying. Crossing the River Styx they encounter a pestilence of frogs (hence the play’s title) and other setbacks, eventually making their way to the throne room of Pluto, god of the Underworld. There they discover that, freed from the fear of death, everyone in the Underworld is having a rollicking good time. In a poignant moment, Dionysus is briefly reunited with his beloved mortal wife, Ariadne, who urges him to complete his quest. But Dionysus has one last challenge: should he bring back the brilliant, witty, and insightful but acerbic GBS, as planned, or resurrect the more poetic and reflective William Shakespeare? Game on.

There is enough broad comedy and engaging music in this show to appeal to anyone with a liberal sense of humor, but musical-theatre-goers will be thoroughly charmed. The cast insists that you join in the fun, with amped up performances by Dan Johnson as Dionysus and Miles Bond as Xanthius. Both men can sing, and they knock out the fast-paced songs and patois with humor and aplomb. Johnson has some tender moments dreaming of Ariadne, and this helps punctuate the comedic thrust of the show. The chorus is also rich with talent, singing with moving conviction and playing multiple roles in addition to the titular frogs.

Jake Rydell, who is hilarious as the buff buffoon Herakles, doubles as music director. Rachel Bieber gives us a stoner Charon, ferryman of the River Styx. Maxim Hunt is a chill Pluto, who is a charming host and down-to-earth (under-the-earth) god. Kaitlyn Valor Bourque shines as a feisty George Bernard Shaw who is eager to put Shakespeare in his place. Her speech from St. Joan is appropriately stirring. Jonathan Jones, as William Shakespeare, delivers a sweet solo, “Fear No More” taken from Cymbeline. Megan Welenc, who is a terrifying, shrieking amazon, surprises us as Ariadne, with a bell-like soprano that stops the show.

The cast is supported by Blake Pruneau, who provides spot-on musical accompaniment on the piano. Act One is staged in the front room at STI and then everyone shifts to the back performance space as we transition to the underworld. The production team includes stage manager Alanna Elling, with technical design and execution by Jackson Abohasira and costumes by Tiaja Sabrie.

The Frogs is embellished by some strong language and implied sex scenes. It’s  inappropriate for young children, but immature adults will enjoy it tremendously.

Week of 10/19/2020

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