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Children's Theatre's A Year With Frog & Toad: Highly upbeat

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Ever since Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis won the regional Tony award, I've been hungering to see a production of their musical calling card, A Year With Frog & Toad. That hunger wasn't inspired merely by curiosity -- or a blind devotion to the Arnold Lobel books that fueled the Robert & Willie Reale stage collaboration.

So happens that the American Theatre Critics Association met for their annual conference in the Twin Cities just after the 2003 Tonies. We all received CDs of the original cast recording, and the raggy, silly, sometimes Sondheimy music has occasionally served as a soundtrack during subsequent travels.

I'm not the only critic who thought highly of the music. The Minneapolis company brought their original production to Broadway, explaining how Rob Reale reeled in a second Tony for best score.

The Children's Theatre production at ImaginOn through Feb. 15 matches up very favorably with the recording. Restlessness at McColl Family Theatre broke out a couple of times Sunday afternoon during the ballads, but the storyline is highly episodic and upbeat -- like most of the music.

Frog is insouciant and trusting to a fault, and Mark Sutton plays him with a perfect mix of warmth and naivete. Frog's best friend Toad, fearful and self-conscious, is proof that opposites attract. If Sutton plays Frog with that special softness that comes with performing for children hundreds of times, Robbie Jaeger tackles Toad with the outsized, outré brashness of a celeb guest on Sesame Street.

Works beautifully under Ron Chisholm's smart direction. When Toad mopes over never receiving any mail, Frog instantly decides to write his best-bud a letter. Ah, but receipt won't occur until deep into Act 2 (yes, you must brace your favorite anklebiter for an intermission) because Frog entrusts delivery to Snail. Nicia Carla feasts on the solos of this slow-motion running joke, putting "the go in escargot" with cheerful pluck.

Jim Gloster's set design has just the right hot-cocoa feel for this quaint bedtime saga, transitioning smoothly from indoors to outdoors for the traumatic "Frog looks funny in a bathing suit" episode. Courtney Burt Scott's costumes, especially for the trio of birds, are a tweet-tweet treat. Caroline Bower, Susan Cherin Gundersheim, and Nic Bryan harmonize beautifully as the Birds, morphing into various meadow creatures as the seasons roll on.

Music director Drina Keen presides in the orchestra pit with her usual zest, tossing in some of the ragtime licks on keyboard. Special flavors emerge from Jack Murray on woodwinds and Jim Duckworth on guitar. Duckworth picks on a banjo in the delightful "Getta Load of Toad" mockfest and strums the rag into "The Kite." Even Sutton and Jaeger get into the instrumental act in the soft-shoe flavored "He'll Never Know," converting their rakes to percussion instruments as they secretly rake each other's yards.

They even celebrate Christmas together before going into hibernation. Our swanky birds head south. Carrying luggage.

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