Nathan Lane stars in Aristophanes' 'Frogs'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   July 31, 2004 at 7:44 AM
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NEW YORK, July 31 (UPI) -- Broadway superstar Nathan Lane has written and stars in his own free adaptation of Aristophanes' "The Frogs" to kick off the 20th anniversary season of Lincoln Center Theater, briefly turning the Big Apple into the Big Pond.

Lane has transformed the Greek playwright's 2,409-year-old comedy into a rip-roaring 21st-century burlesque. It is full of bawdy humor and allusions to the cell phones, bungee jumping and the Bush administration's foreign policy, but is played in classic costumes -- or their Las Vegas equivalents -- against the commentary of a traditional Greek chorus.

"The Frogs" is the 48-year-old actor's first attempt at playwriting although he has a long history of writing nightclub comedy sketches.

Aristophanes' play is an anti-war polemic that has Dionysos, the demigod of wine and the theater, making a trip to Pluto's underworld kingdom, Hades, disguised as the fearless Hercules to bring back to Earth the shades of either Aeschylus or Euripides as the playwright to restore Athens to its senses.

Athens has been bogged down by an unwise 20-year war with Sparta and needs the moral leadership that Dionysos believes can be provided by a great poet. He is opposed in his mission to Hades by the right wingers of the era who are depicted as frogs determined on maintaining the status quo and continuing the Peloponnesian power wars.

Lane has enlarged on a 90-minute musical adaptation of "The Frogs" that premiered at the Yale University School of Drama in 1974 with a book by Broadway's Burt Shevelove, who died in 1982, and music by Stephen Sondheim. This was an aquatic extravaganza with a water ballet performed at the university's gymnasium swimming pool, and has become something of a theatrical legend.

Shevelove had Dionysos seeking William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw as possible saviors of Athens, and Lane has retained this substitution for Aristophanes' choice of Greek dramatists. He also has added an hour to Shevelove's libretto, and Sondheim, now Broadway's 74-year-old king of musical comedy, has written seven new songs for the Lincoln Center production including a charming ballad sung by Dionysos about his dead wife, Ariadne.

Musically, the show is sprightly, sometimes vociferously aggressive, but it lacks the buoyancy of Sondheim's score for his other "classical" musical, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way of the Forum," in which Lane starred in a recent Broadway revival. Lane has a weakness for these toga roles and is generally hilarious as the fussy, insecure Dionysos, quaking with fear of his aggressive frog enemies while attempting Hercules' macho swagger.

Lane is not as successful in padding out Shevelove's "The Frogs" to the length of 2 1/2 hours. He has ended up with a show full of timeworn one-line jokes, many of them about hell, predictable punch lines, and plenty of shtick but a paucity of strikingly inventive humor, and the show could profit from being shortened by 30 minutes. Fortunately there is some inventive humor, much of it supplied by Tony Award-winning director Susan Stroman, who also choreographed the show.

Stroman supplies "The Frogs" with rich fantasy, including suspending Charon, whose River Styx ferry boat takes the dead to Hades, high in the air between trips, flooding the stage with make-believe water through lighting effects and having frogs jump from lily pad to lily pad, and treating troupes of Amazons and Pluto's hell-raisers like Broadway chorus lines in glittering or minimal costuming designed by William Ivey Long. Giles Cadle's two-level set is endlessly elastic when it comes to scene changes.

Abetting Lane in his antics is Roger Bart, who appeared with Lane in "The Producers," playing the role of Dionysos' giddily irreverent slave, Xanthias. It is difficult to upstage Lane, but if anyone can do it, Bart can. Burke Moses, the original Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast" is a deliciously egoistic Hercules, John Byner is an impressive Charon, and Peter Bartlett is a madly mincing Pluto.

Bryn Dowling makes a lovely Ariadne in what is a disappointingly underwritten role, and Daniel Davis and Michael Siberry give powerful performances as Shaw and Shakespeare respectively in their one big scene, a heated debate that results in Dionysos choosing Shakespeare rather than his favorite, Shaw, to take back to earth as an envoy of poesy and wisdom.

Paul Gemignani, Broadway's top musical director, conducts the Jonathan Tunick-orchestrated score. The show, announced as a limited engagement, will run through Oct. 9.


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