Conditions being what they are in Washington, D.C., it seems like the perfect time for a musical send-up of political venality and the impotent citizens whom they govern. With Congress refusing to pass any bills that actually might help people, we need artists who will stand up and tell the passive masses that things are in a dire state.
And that's what The Frogs, now at Cain Park, attempts to do through a very loose adaptation of the play by Aristophanes that was first produced in Greece in 405 B.C. Established comedic talents Burt Shevelove (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and Nathan Lane (Max Bialystock in The Producers) adapted the play with a goal of creating laughs amid a serious message about governance.
Instead, The Frogs is a heavily padded, sometimes rambling, and often remarkably unfunny piece of material that strains so hard you can feel its veins bulging. This production, directed by the talented Martin Friedman, has some bright spots. But no matter how hard the 15-person cast works, they can't really lift Stephen Sondheim's pedestrian music (and admittedly clever lyrics) out of this less-than-incisive satire.
The wittiest moment happens right away, when two actors instruct the audience on approved behavior for the upcoming show. Sure, it's a pale version of the much better opening number, "Comedy Tonight," that Sondheim wrote for A Funny Thing. But there are some cute lines, such as "Don't say 'What?'/To every line you think you haven't got." (Good advice, since there are a lot of lines that are buried in poor acoustics or rushed deliveries.)
Those actors then play the roles of Dionysos, the god of drama and wine, and his slave Xanthias. But these aren't ancient characters — since the time of the play is present — though the place is ancient Greece. And Dionysos is on a mission to go to Hades and bring back the acerbic playwright George Bernard Shaw, so he can write more dramas that will alert dormant citizens (the "frogs") to the sorry mess the world is in.
Along the way, Dionysos and Xanthias encounter various denizens of the underworld while singing songs, dancing, dispensing groaners ("Does Pandora have an open box?") and inside-Broadway nudges ("...too fussy, too Fosse...").
In the lead role of Dionysos, the excellent singer and actor Dan Folino plays his part like a slacker/stoner with a shuffling gait and a what-the-fuck attitude that doesn't quite jibe with his character's all-consuming mission. But when he beautifully croons the love song "Ariadne," almost all is forgiven.
As his punching bag Xanthias, Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly lands some nice deadpan lines ("I'm a slave, but I prefer the word intern."). But she doesn't have the innate comedic chops to use her physical assets, such as her comparatively short stature, to take some chances and make Xanthias the standout role it should be.
Running and jumping all over scenic designer Ron Newell's elaborate set — two staircases, a balcony, pillars and a moat filled with babbling water — the cast soldiers on through multiple costume changes. This includes an energetic frog dance routine, designed by choreographer Martin Cespedes, with all the amphibians attired in black suits.
As for the golden moments, Nicole Sumlin lights it up after the intermission in a torchy turn as Pluto in the song "Hades." Attired in one of costume designer Tesia Dugan Benson's more riveting creations, Sumlin is fierce and (blessedly) completely understandable as she touts the upside of down under: "You never have to fret about fate/It's all too late/I mean you're dead."
And then around the two-hour mark of this sadly unedited two-and-a-half hour excursion, Mitchell Fields as Shakespeare and Michael Regnier as Shaw go mano-a-mano in a battle to see who will accompany Dionysos back to the wicked world. Watching these two skilled actors tweak each other while they intone their characters' actual words is a sublime treat.
Darryl Lewis as Herakles and Eric Thomas Fancher as Charon also contribute interesting bits. But there are far too many dead spots in what should be a light and satiric romp in hell.
Through August 17, produced by the City of Cleveland Heights at Cain Park's Alma Theater, 14591 Superior Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000, cainpark.com.