Broadway and Beyond: A Frog's Life

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Is Nathan Lane Broadway’s greatest star ever? You could make the argument. With him hamming it up as theatrical impresario Max Bialystock, The Producers is a sellout smash; with anybody else in the role, it’s just another struggling Broadway musical. If he takes a liking to a project — a revival of Butley, say, which he starred in last year in Boston — it is immediately eyed as a possible candidate for Broadway. And if he wants to revive a little-known Stephen Sondheim musical — and not just star in it, but rewrite the thing too — darned if it isn’t the hottest ticket of New York’s summer season.

But what’s most amazing about Lane’s update of The Frogs, Sondheim and Burt Shevelove’s musical version of Aristophanes originally staged in a swimming pool at Yale in 1974, is that he’s turned it into a play about George W. Bush. In the Greek original, Dionysos, the god of theater, travels to the underworld to choose which of Athens’ two late, great playwrights, Aeschylus or Euripides, should return to earth. Shevelove updated it by making the battle between George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare. Lane keeps those playwrights but adds a twist: Dionysos wants to bring back Shaw to help save the nation from its current troubles — namely, “a war we may not be able to win. A war we shouldn’t even be in.” Thinly veiled political punches are thrown throughout; Dionysos, for instance, laments that the nation’s leaders are keeping us in fear: “If we start to question things — merely question — we are accused of being disloyal.” Lines like that drew loud applause from the pre-opening crowd at New York’s Lincoln Center, just days after Linda Ronstadt got fired in Las Vegas for dedicating a song to Michael Moore. Talk about two Americas.

Unfortunately, The Frogs is more successful as a barometer of the growing political bent of theater these days than as an evening’s entertainment. Though Sondheim has added six new songs for Lane’s expanded version (mostly filler, including a love song that Dionysos sings to his dead wife Ariadne), this is minor Sondheim — and even minor Nathan Lane. He’s as commanding as ever on stage, with a voice that can rally a herd of elephants, but seems oddly muted here, perhaps to suit his sober theme. The cast around him works hard, including pros like Roger Bart (who replaced Saturday Night Live’s Chris Kattan at the last minute) and comic John Byner (slyly underplaying as Charon, the wisecracking pilot of the boat to Hades). And director Susan Stroman (The Producers) has pitched in with everything from bungee cords and backflipping frogs. It all might have worked if the central conceit didn’t seem so fusty and out of touch. Summoning George Bernard Shaw to save the nation? How many people today even know his plays, much less remember that he once wrote a famous essay proposing that he was “better than Shakespeare”? Lane might as well have brought back Ethel Merman. Now that would be a battle.