'Croaker the Frog Prince' hops onto the Riverside stage

By Collette Caprara for The Free Lance-Star

The featured musical of Riverside Children’s Theater, “Croaker,” will whisk audiences away to a magical realm of the legendary Frog Prince and imbue a sparkle of enchantment that will live on in their hearts long after they return home.

Even the typically humble Steve and Mary Thompson—co-founders of the Children’s Theater who serve as director and music director for this show—cannot contain their enthusiasm for this production.

“This show is so delightful and the quality of this material is far above what people normally see in children’s productions,” said Steve. “When they hear the music that Jason Marks has composed for this finely crafted script they will realize they are seeing a Broadway-caliber show!”

The premier cast and crew that gathered to bring the production to reality include performers from Riverside’s mainstage (such as Colton Montgomery as Croaker the Frog, who is concurrently playing Caleb in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”) as well as Kathy Halenda (who also played the queen in the musical’s debut in Richmond and brought along her costume for this production). In addition, acclaimed choreographer Anthony Williams took a break from his current activities in Vancouver and came back to the burg to add his magic touch to this show.

Montgomery’s depiction of the hapless but hopeful affable amphibian is comically convincing—from his exaggerated facial expressions to his frog-like movements in numbers ranging from a vaudeville-style duet with the softhearted king (David Schubert) to heartwarming ballads. A special treat is Nina Maliszewski’s portrayal of the aptly named Princess Acrimonia. Nina’s powerful pipes, dramatic poses and depiction of emotions ranging from anger to angst reveal a talent that seems far beyond her 17 years. As the cunning and conniving queen that everyone loves to loathe, veteran actress Halenda has the audience at the edge of their seats, while Matthew Cornpropst’s lighting design adds an ominous atmosphere to her scenes—which the Royal Page (Elijah Beale) periodically penetrates with humorous artful asides and quips to the audience.

The action begins as the populace of the palace assembles and the royal celebration of Princess Acrimonia’s birthday begins. As she scoffs at and hurls aside each unacceptable gift, presents are offered with increasing trepidation. The pouty princess’s dissatisfaction climaxes with a present from her father the king: a gold ball which was commissioned especially for her, with hopes that she might actually venture into nature in the garden to play with it.

Into the garden Princess Acrimonia does go, but only to throw the ball into the depths of the well. Letting out a yelp, Croaker the frog emerges rubbing the welt on his head as the princess stomps away.

In spite of continually coddling her daughter and the future heiress to the kingdom, the queen takes a stand against her ingratitude for her father’s heartfelt gift and confiscates the princess’s cellphone until she retrieves the ball. (The cellphone dilemma is just one of a bevy of humorous anachronisms that pepper the production).

Back in the garden, Acrimonia demands that Croaker give her back her ball, only to be met with a series of counter-demands from the frog. With that, a hilarious action-packed escapade begins. Croaker is buttressed by his beach-bum frog posse, or “Frosse,” (Zecharia Beale, Jeremiah Aida and Muggs Leone). But the crew strays off-mission when a trio of “valley girl” Ladies of the Court catches their eye (Katelyn Farrell, Natalie Mullanaphy and Elizabeth Butler).

The drama climaxes with the “kissing dance” at the Royal Ball. As the music pauses, Croaker’s true identity is revealed and the evil queen receives her just desserts. (All of which has something to do with Prince Lucas’ mysterious disappearance many years ago and sets the stage for the King’s famous one-liner: “Luke, I am your father.”)

In spite of the rowdy plot and rambunctious characters, the musical includes emotive scenes that everyone in the audience may relate to. Acrimonia’s ingratitude, self-absorption, and anger is revealed to be just a thin veneer that covers her desire for meaning in her life and a true sense of her identity. Although seemingly an unlikely mentor, Croaker emerges as her guide and his friendship is the key to the princess’s becoming her true self. “That is one of the themes of the show: What is required to be a good friend?” said Thompson. “It involves being upfront and honest with each other and being supportive when someone is having issues or facing a problem.

“I promise you that when you come here and see this, you will leave feeling good about being a human being. You will be ennobled and uplifted and you will leave with a song in your heart and a giant smile on your face!”