Nothing says Christmas like a neurotic Toad and a trip to the Tastee Kreme. Sounds funny, but it’s true, and both things figure prominently in the Penobscot Theatre Company’s holiday productions – along with a very nasty-tempered bullfrog, UFOs, heavily armed townsfolk and several mischievous rodents. The shows this year are the delightful musical “A Year With Frog and Toad” and the irreverent cult favorite play “A Tuna Christmas,” the former directed by PTC mainstay Nathan Halvorson, the latter by PTC education and outreach director Joye Cook-Levy.
While both shows share many more differences than similarities – one is sweet, charming and meant for kids, the other PG-13 and much more suited for adults – they have one important thing in common. It’s Christmas, and whether you’re one of the residents of Tuna, the second-smallest town in Texas, or a woodland creature getting into all kinds of adventures, you celebrate the season in the ways you know best.
“A Year With Frog and Toad” is based on the children’s stories by Arnold Lobel, and was adapted for the stage by brothers Robert and Willie Reale. Through a series of sparkling, irresistibly catchy songs, it tells the story of a year in the life of best friends Frog and Toad, starting in spring with the pair waking from hibernation, and ending at Christmas. The two friends are kind of an odd couple, with Frog playing the Oscar to Toad’s Felix.
“Toad is lost. He always wants to do new things, but he’s scared and doesn’t know how,” said Dominick Varney, who plays the uptight amphibian. “But his friend Frog will guide him. Frog is my Buddha.”
“We balance each other,” said Hans-Stefan Ducharme, who plays Frog. “Toad is very cautious. Frog loves life and all that it has to offer. They’re a perfect pair.”
The show is narrated by a host of forest denizens, played interchangeably by the versatile trio of Ben Layman, Christie Robinson and Rebecca Bailey. None of the actors onstage appears in animal costumes, opting instead for finely tailored 1920s and ’30s garb created by costume designer Lex Liang. The show also has a lot of dancing, including a big three-person number featuring Layman, Robinson and Bailey, and a soft-shoe interlude featuring Ducharme and Varney.
“I think of Frog as Fred Astaire and Toad as Gene Kelly, because there’s so much dancing in the show,” said Halvorson, who also choreographed the production. “Fred is very graceful and polished, and Gene is a little rougher and dirtier. It really works for the characterization.”
The appeal of the show is vast – not just for kids, but also for parents.
“Kids still know the books and love them. Plus, it’s just such a funny story, and it moves very quickly. It’s extremely engaging,” said Halvorson. “The music is very jazz-infused. It’s so sweet and fun. I think both parents and kids can connect with it. It’s kind of old-fashioned, in a way. It’s not ‘SpongeBob SquarePants on Ice.’ It’s got substance.”
“A Tuna Christmas” – the spice to the sugar of “Frog and Toad” -takes place in the tiny Texas town named after the sandwich, and it features Nathan Halvorson and PTC producing artistic director Scott Levy taking on more than 20 different characters, including Didi Snavely, owner of Didi’s Used Weapons, and her husband R.R., an expert on UFOs; Inita and Helen, the man-chasing waitresses at the Tastee Kreme; and taxidermist Stanley Bumiller, just to name a few.
“It’s definitely a challenge to make all these different characters come alive,” said Halvorson. “Joye is able to help us fine-tune each little specific thing about each character, so they all feel different. The costume changes will help.”
“A Tuna Christmas” is one of four plays that take place in the world of Tuna, including “Greater Tuna,” “Red White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas,” all written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. The plays in the “Tuna-verse” are both an affectionate send-up and a satire of small-town life – something anyone living in a rural region can identify with, be it Texas or Maine.
The shows are regularly performed across the country, and have attracted a devoted cult following over the years. “Greater Tuna” holds the distinction of being the most-produced play in the United States.
“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” said director Cook-Levy. “It’s eccentric and witty, and it’s an incredibly fun show.”
Levy and Halvorson change clothes multiple times during the production, adding to the madcap hilarity onstage.
“Every time we walk out onstage, there’s going to be a laugh, just to see what we look like,” said Halvorson. “And the great thing is that while we look really weird and funny, the dialogue backs it all up. The whole thing is just hilarious. Plus, seeing Scott as a woman is pretty funny. It’s hard for me to not laugh, personally.”
“A Year With Frog and Toad” opens in previews on Wednesday, Dec. 10. “A Tuna Christmas” premieres Saturday, Dec. 13. There are performances scheduled every day through Dec. 23, except for Monday, Dec. 15; to purchase tickets, call 942-3333 or visit the Bangor Opera House box office. For more information and specific show times, visit www.penobscottheatre.org.