Pros: An excellent cast that saves the show from mediocrity.
Cons: Surprisingly weak songs that leave the script to do all the work.
Despite the long shadow cast by its neighbours in Shaftsbury Avenue, Jermyn Street Theatre continues to thrive with the UK premier of Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs. Adapted by another Broadway legend, Nathan Lane, it would appear to have everything going for it.
The story tells of Dionysos – Greek god of wine and drama – and his slave Xanthias on a journey to Hades. Their mission is to collect the renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw and return him to earth so he might entertain the masses and educate them in the error of their ways. Along the way they encounter Herakles, Charon, Pluto and the eponymous frogs. William Shakespeare throws a spanner in the works and challenges Bernard Shaw to a play-off featuring their greatest hits. The victor will travel back with Dionysos to complete their earth mission. So who will win this battle of words and reincarnate for the good of humankind?
The story is billed as a send up of a Greek comedy, and loosely based on a play by Aristophanes which was apparently a smash hit back in 405 BC. Try as I might, the comedic elements were totally lost on me and the audience response was more polite than spontaneous. Coming from the same team that created A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Frogs seemed strangely flat with songs that struggled to hold the attention. Could this possibly be the work of Stephen Sondheim co-creator of Westside Story, the coolest musical in the history of the universe?
Thankfully, the players raised the show to more pleasing levels with some eye catching performances. Michael Matus delivered a likable turn as Dionysos while Li-Tong Hsu was mesmerising as Virilla. However, the stand-outs were unsurprisingly Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare who naturally became the protagonists of the piece. Martin Dickinson was sharp and engaging as Bernard Shaw while Nigel Pilkington nailed a totally authentic portrayal of Shakespeare.
As the story reached its climax an unexpected message began to emerge. How would a literary genius view the modern world and why shouldn’t thinkers be doers in such turbulent times? This took me by surprise and gave the show a kick of profundity. In a political arena dominated by Trump and Putin it must give us all food for thought.
Adapted by: Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Grace Wessels
Musical Director: Tim Sutton
Movement Director: Tim McArthur
Producer: House on the Hill Productions
Booking Until: 8 April 2017
Box Office: 020 7287 2875
Booking Link: https://www.eticketing.co.uk/jermynstreettheatre/list.aspx?tagref=119