Bert and Ernie. Abbott and Costello. Neil A. Casey and Larry Coen?
Two of Boston’s best comic actors have teamed up for the Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of “A Year With Frog and Toad,” and although they deny they were typecast, they confess to some similarities with the characters.
“I am very easygoing,” says Casey, who plays the impulsive Frog. “Nothing fazes me.”
“I’m a little reluctant,” says Coen, who plays the fretful Toad. “And I find I’ve been complaining about things a lot lately. I don’t think I’m like that all the time, do you?”
That, in a nutshell, describes the two characters at the heart of Robert and Willie Reale’s charming musical adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s stories of two great friends with dissimilar dispositions. The calendar of seasons sets the tone and the pacing for the musical, which features scenes and songs built around moments when the friends wake up from hibernation, come over for a visit, go for a swim, fly a kite, and go sledding. But the beauty and simplicity of the storytelling belie the strong bond of friendship between Frog and Toad.
“They are characters who are very open with their emotions,” says Coen. “They say what they feel, and that’s powerful. But these characters also say a lot about how complex friendships can be: Friends can be supportive and infuriating, thoughtful and thoughtless. It’s all a part of trusting someone.”
Wheelock Family Theatre reached out to Seattle-based director Mimi Katano to helm the show. Katano, who is the artistic director at Youth Theatre Northwest, had worked as a performer with Coen when they were both involved in Boston’s Beau Jest Moving Theater, and she is a graduate of Wheelock’s master’s degree program in child development.
“Mimi had worked as a director with the theater more than a decade ago,” says Wheelock artistic director Shelley Bolman. “She is very comfortable working with our young actors, and she also understands the depth of emotions in ‘Frog and Toad.’ We were excited that she was able to come back to Boston to work with us, and we think she made the absolute perfect casting choices.”
The Wheelock production, which features a large youth ensemble, is recommended for ages 4 and up.
Casey and Coen say the fact that they’ve been friends for years informs their characters. The two first met when they appeared together in the farce “Inspecting Carol” at the Lyric Stage Company in 2000, and both are known for their impeccable comic timing. Although Casey says he’s not as comfortable with improvisation as Coen, the two sit on stage during a break in a recent rehearsal cracking each other up with stories and jokes.
“I’ve never played the title role in a musical,” Casey says. “It’s a little scary, and challenging to keep it alive and vibrant.”
“We’re comic actors,” says Coen, “so we both struggle with the ballads. You know: Why is this slow? Where’s the punch line?”
Both actors say that while the “Frog and Toad” stories may be very simple, the music is very sophisticated.
“There are tricky intervals and complicated chord changes that make it challenging and interesting to perform,” Casey says.
Frog and Toad’s friendship has a timeless quality and dependability that make Lobel’s stories, and the musical, so appealing to kids, Coen says.
“I think a lot of kids’ stories emerge out of chaos and anarchy,” he says. “But in every story of Frog and Toad, each action starts with someone trying to do the right thing. Misunderstandings happen and feelings get hurt, but the impulse is always kindness first.”
A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD
Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston, through May 15. Tickets: $20-$38, 617-879-2300, www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org