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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Frogs
Jermyn Street Theatre  Spring 2017

This musical adaptation of Aristophanes by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim had its first production in the Yale University swimming pool in 1974, and remains the least-often revived of Sondheim's works, even on dry land. 

And this belated UK premiere, even allowing for the handicaps of low budget and tiny stage, does little to recommend it. 

The Frogs remains more a curiosity than a satisfying musical, essential for Sondheim buffs looking to complete their experience of the master, but with little to offer anyone else. 

Burt Shevelove's book (here in a later version expanded by Nathan Lane) filters Aristophanes' political satire through a twentieth-century sensibility. Despairing of the state of the world, the demigod Dionysos travels to Hades to bring back a wise author (Euripides in the original, Shaw here) to guide humanity. 

After a string of serious and comic misadventures he decides that the world needs inspiration more than instruction, and opts for Shakespeare rather than Shaw (Aeschylus rather than Euripides). 

In his volumes of collected lyrics Sondheim admits that he only did the show because he owed Shevelove a big favour, hated the experience and took away only the personal satisfaction of attempting songs in the form and style of Greek drama. 

And you can sense a half-heartedness to it. One song recycles lyrics cut from A Funny Thing Happened, and there are melodic echoes or precursors throughout, to A Funny Thing, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods and others. 

One flaw in the play's structure that director Grace Wessels is unable to disguise is that Dionysos's various adventures along the way with Herakles, Charon, the titular Frogs and his lost love Ariadne don't feed into the main action in any real way, and play like self-contained digressions just filling up the time until we can get to the ending. 

(Another is the loss of context. Aristophanes wrote in the final year of a disastrous war that would destroy Athens, so his satiric solution to the world's problems had some bite. Nothing about this version of the story really matters.) 

Still, the two quietly romantic songs attached to the Ariadne subplot are pretty, and you can sense that a couple of the larger numbers, the Frogs' chorus and a Dionysian revel, might have been fun if the budget and the Jermyn Street Theatre's postage-stamp-sized stage had allowed for a larger production. 

Actor Michael Matus brings some comic energy to Dionysos and George Rae to his hapless slave. Jonathan Wadey has fun channelling Beetlejuice as Charon and Emma Ralston makes the most of her one number as a dominatrix Pluto. 

There really isn't enough here to attract the general theatregoer, but I'm sure London has enough Sondheim completists to fill the Jermyn Street for a month.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Frongs - Jermyn Street Theatre 2017   

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