by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Frogs" Nathan Lane's Folly
by Aristophanes, adapted by Burt Shevelore
and freely adapted by Nathan Lane
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
The Lincoln Center Theater at
The Vivian Beaumont
Reviewed August 10,2004 by Margaret Croyden

Nathan Lane is a terrific comic. And a successful one at that. Who can forget his performance in "The Producers," "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," "A Funny Thing Happened...," "The Bird Cage," and numerous other hits that won him many Tony's, Emmy's, and Critics awards. Watching him has always been a pleasure--his pauses, his double takes, his perfect timing, his body work, and his likable personality. Too few genuine comics are working on Broadway today; most have succumbed to television inanity, or to crummy movies, or to low down scatological stand up's to get laughs. But Nathan Lane prefers the stage, though he has dipped into the movies at times.

So I must say that I looked forward to seeing him again on stage, particularly because of his fabulous success in "Producers" which put that production on an all time high. And to make matters more interesting, look who he is working with: Sondheim, Shevelore, and Stroman--all top bananas in their own fields. So what happened on the way to "Frogs?" Sorry to say it all was a disaster. What could Nathan Lane be thinking in this hodge podge production, which was his brainchild, his input, and drive that got it all together.

The story, an adaptation, so the program says, of Aristophanes "Frogs," is, to be sure, a very free adaptation. Our hero, Nathan Lane is Dionysos who sees the world crumbling and wants to save it by going to Hades to get Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare to rescue humanity through their art. The show opens with a funny number instructing the audience how to behave during a play. Good, I thought, this is a swell beginning. But soon after the production takes a dip. The energy is slowly depleted, the songs are not funny or memorable, and this leaves poor Nathan Lane who, with his sidekick Roger Bart (in the role of the slave) to work hard to keep up the jokes--but nothing. In the middle of it Lane sings an idiotic love song about his dead wife, Ariadne. Now Nathan Lane cannot be a romantic hero all of a sudden. He is a top banana comic and a love song in the middle of this is preposterous. First of all Lane is unbelievable, he can't sing these kinds of songs to begin with and, as Dionysos, his longing for his dead wife is ludicrous. Why, in the middle of what supposed to be a comedy, did we need this silly song? From then on there was no where for this production to go, but down.

But lets not forget that Sondheim, the darling of the musical world who, some say, can do no wrong, did plenty wrong here. He is, after all responsible for the silly "Ariadne" song. In fact, not one song, except for the opening number, is any good; the lyrics are meaningless; the music unidentifiable and plainly dull. What came over Sondheim, or has he always been overrated? Remember "The Assassins" which was also underscored and messy as if the composer was confused about his point of view?

And then there is the director Susan Stroman. The dancing is a slick imitation of every company that ever appeared on stage. Apparently Stroman was interested in being spectacular and phony spectacular is worse than no spectacular. People were continually flying in the air--even Nathan Lane was hitched up to a flying machine and tossed around, so that it was not only not funny but elicited pity for Nathan's ordeal. More and more high flyers appeared: every few moments something, or someone dropped from the sky. And there were the costumed frogs in their repetitious high jumping numbers. And what a pile of ugly frogs in ugly costumes. I know they're supposed to be ugly but who wants to watch it? And that wasn't the end of it. Every musical must have puddles of water on stage and this production was no exception. So water there was as Charon (another unappealing character) pulls the boat to Hades. I forgot--at the beginning we have Herakles giving advice to Dionysos about what costume he should wear in Hades. (And what a bunch of repulsive costumes they are).

I guess you get the point by now that "Frogs" is a mess. And poor Nathan Lane is stuck with it. But what was he and his company thinking? How come they didn't see all this? How come all these talented people were drawn into this fiasco and screwed up so much? But this is not an unusual happening in the theater. Every other day, so to speak, gifted artists are involved in disastrous flops. Don't they know--a question one always wonders about. But that's a whole other story that is beside the point right now. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden is the author of "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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