ST. PETERSBURG — Overheard outside freeFall Theatre before the Sunday afternoon performance:
"Nobody does The Frogs," a man in line for a ticket said to his companion.
He was right. Stephen Sondheim's musical adaptation of Aristophanes' traditional Greek comedy is rarely produced. Even many diehard fans aren't familiar with The Frogs, beyond knowing it as the answer to a Jeopardy question: "Sondheim musical premiered in the Yale University swimming pool."
So freeFall is taking a bold step simply by staging The Frogs, but there is more than just scholarly interest to the first show in the company's impressive new black-box theater in what used to be a Christian Science church. Sondheim's 1974 musical, with a book by Burt Shevelove plus some material added in 2004 by Nathan Lane, is on the slight side, but it still comes as revelation how entertaining it is. The astringent sounds of the score are vintage Sondheim — several numbers are reminiscent of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Into the Woods — and the lyrics have the charm and wit of his best writing.
Jorge Acosta stars as Dionysos, god of drama and wine, who is determined to resurrect a great playwright — George Bernard Shaw is his initial choice — from Hades to inspire ancient Athens, which is mired in ennui and cynicism due to the endless, unwinnable Peloponnesian War. But before setting off on his quest, he offers some dos and don'ts in Invocation and Instructions to the Audience: "Please don't cough / It tends to throw the actors off," then further declaiming "Please refrain / From candy wrapped in cellophane" (the woman behind me didn't heed that one) and "Please don't fart / There's very little air and this is art."
It's an inspired piece of silliness, and the perfect opening number for freeFall's new home, and Acosta, though far from the most lyrical singer around, is a savvy trouper who knows how to sell a comic scene, of which The Frogs has many. Dionysos is accompanied on his journey to the underworld by his slave, Xanthias, played as a callow slacker by Dick Baker. They hook up with Charon, ferryman of the dead across the River Styx, portrayed by James Berkley as a kind of manic cruise line captain.
Artistic director Eric Davis not only directed The Frogs but he also designed the costumes, and his talents all come together in the Act 1 finale, as the green-clad chorus attack Charon's skiff and perform a boffo number featuring a giant blow-up frog. Karla Hartley's lighting bathes everything in a greenish glow.
Later, Davis outfits Aleshea Harris and Kerry Lynn Foley in Palm Beach-style as attendants to Pluto, ruler of the underworld, who comes across like Paul Lynde in hell in the hilarious performance of Matthew McGee. And muscleman Herakles (Colte Julian) has a song to fashion, Dress Big.
The Frogs bogs down near the end, when Shaw (McGee) and Shakespeare (Joel Martin) engage in a duel of words, and Dionysos has to choose between "the great abstractions: conscience, virtue and integrity" (Shaw) or poetry (Shakespeare) to save the world.
For The Frogs, the audience is seated on three sides of the stage, with the other side occupied by Greg Bierce's graceful white set of pillars, arch and frog-topped urns. If this debut production is any indication of things to come, freeFall is going to be the site of many fine days and nights in the theater.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.