★★★ | The Frogs, Jermyn Street Theatre
Stephen Sondheim is the grand master of some of the wittiest, campest and catchiest musical theatre numbers of all time. He’s also still going strong and still writing at 86. His back catalogue is staggering with Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Company to name a few, so it’s exciting to see a rarely revived 1974 musical re-surface.
There’s always a worry that there’s a reason a musical stayed under the water (be warned, the ‘frog’ puns are just too easy to resist) and in this case, it’s easy to see why this one floundered and never quite hit the shoreline.
The story is based on an ancient Greek comedy and concerns a demi-god and his slave who decide to travel to the underworld to bring back a great writer. It’s as silly a story as it sounds and a mad musical but one with a timely political undertone about the role of the arts in society. The chorus sidle on and off the stage playing a variety of parts, jazz-handed and legs crossing and high-kicking in the tiny space of The Jermyn Street Theatre. Dionysos and his slave have some great interactions but the songs are sparse with long discourses in between about theatre and the arts. It sounds dull but isn’t at all, apart from a peculiar piece in the second act that slackens the pace. This being Sondheim, the lyrics are densely packed and razor sharp. It can feel like a list of ‘in’ jokes at times with riffs on theatre etiquette and the behaviour of actors but they’re funny ‘in’ jokes nonetheless. Michael Matus as Dionysos is a musical theatre stalwart/legend and it’s a privilege to see him perform in such an intimate venue.
The Frogs was originally performed in a swimming pool with Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep splashing around amongst the cast. According to Sondheim, the acoustics made it sound like it was being sung in a urinal and it bombed. Nathan Lane (The Birdcage, The Producers and The Good Wife) re-invigorated the play in 2004 but still; it’s a difficult beast.
If like me you’re a Sondheim fanatic then you’ll love this. If you’re not initiated then it might feel like a drag.
The Frogs plays at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8th April 2017