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The Frogs review at Jermyn Street Theatre, London – ‘considerable gusto and charm’

George Rae, Michael Matus and cast in The Frogs at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo: David Ovenden George Rae, Michael Matus and cast in The Frogs at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photo: David Ovenden
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Here’s a real musical rarity. Sondheim and Burt Shevelove had a big 1960s Broadway and West End hit with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way the Forum, inspired by the Roman farces of Plautus. However, The Frogs, which they freely adapted from Aristophanes is relatively obscure. It premiered in a production staged in a Yale University swimming pool in 1974, and was subsequently seen – again in a swimming pool – in Brentford in west London in 1990.

But in 2004, Nathan Lane starred in and adapted a revised version of it for a short Broadway run at Lincoln Center, and now that version is finally receiving its UK premiere in the water-free setting of the basement Jermyn Street Theatre.

The show is simultaneously dense and playful. It’s a meta-musical that regularly comments on itself (and audience behaviour, too. We’re cautioned: “Please don’t fart / There’s very little air and this is art”), while also embracing a larger, forever timely debate about the redemptive power of art in an uncertain world.

It revolves around Dionysos, Greek god of drama and wine, who embarks on a quest to Hades to retrieve a writer to challenge a new world order being ruled by fear. Who would be the stronger candidate – Shakespeare or Shaw?

While the debate – and especially a long play-off between the writers using their own words – is a bit of a dry intellectual tease, it’s a welcome opportunity to hear some Sondheim songs that have never been heard before. And it is performed with considerable gusto and charm by a cast led by Michael Matus as Dionysos and George Rae as his sidekick, Xanthias.

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Rare outing for a vintage Sondheim score is given a spirited production