Based on the wonderful books by Arnold Lobel (must-read-to-kids volumes), A Year with Frog and Toad, now at the Arden Theatre, brings Frog (Jeff Coon) and Toad (Ben Dibble) together again (Arden's previous productions were in 2004 and 2009) under the sensitive and astute direction of Whit MacLaughlin.
Coon and Dibble -- both in excellent voice -- lead a dream team: Steve Pacek (whose Snail is the crowd-pleaser); Leigha Kato, a winsome mouse and a tiptop bird; and Elexis Morton, a very musical bird and turtle. This three-person ensemble plays multiple roles, filling out the beloved Lobel roster of mice and lizards and moles. Their adventures -- flying a kite, sledding downhill -- are the modest narratives of the scenes, as the show follows them through their year, from spring awakening after hibernation to January, when they go to sleep again. Frog and Toad is that unusual thing: subtlety and wit in children's theater, without a whiff of condescension or cloying sentimentality.
The show acknowledges the stuff that children (well, maybe adults, too) suffer from: I look funny in a bathing suit, I can't stop eating cookies, I feel sad, I want to be alone. The parents and grandparents in the audience may feel themselves suddenly choked up with lines like, "Don't be afraid — grow!" and "I will be watching every hour / Until you grow up to be a flower."
The songs, ranging from folk ballads to Charlestons, have lyrics by Willie Reale (who also wrote the show's book) and music by Robert Reale. The nifty set designed by Donald Eastman is full of charm but refuses to literalize everything; Thom Weaver's lighting makes flowers bloom where there are no flowers and where there were no seeds.
The costumes designed by Richard St. Clair strike just the right note: These are people playing animals. Frog is dapper, with his matching vests and bowlers; Toad looks sweetly scruffy in his corduroys and sleeveless sweaters. Snail carries a bedroll on his back that serves as his shell. Entrusted to deliver a letter, he walks at, well, a snail's pace, although he thrashes his arms like crazy to speed him on his mission. He is a hillbilly who sings, "I'm the snail with the mail" who puts "the go in escargot."
But, mostly, this is a show about enduring, lovely friendship. It's Waiting for Godot without the aggravation of no-show Godot. The wisdom of the lyrics matches the wisdom of the stories; for example, on the subject of patience: "When is soon? Between now and later."
What an exceptional season the Arden Theatre Co. is having: starting with Aaron Posner's brilliant and melancholy Stupid F**king Bird, followed by the good-natured hilarity of Matthew Lopez's The Legend of Georgia McBride, with Annie Baker's haunting and daunting John still to come. For now, the lovable musical Frog and Toad holds the mainstage, another one not to miss. So grab your child, your grandchild, a neighbor's child, any old child, and discover (or rediscover) this musical treasure.
A Year with Frog and Toad. Through Jan. 29 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. Tickets : $18-36. Information: 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.