“This is something entirely different,” says a promising voiceover near the beginning of The Kiss, a new musical running through August 21 at Lakewood Center for the Arts.
That intro also included Star Wars music, a bit of Disney’s Moana, and a voiceover telling us this will be a “story about love … and a frog.”
None of which sounds all that different from any other fairytale. And the truth is, it isn’t. Not to spoil the ending, but if you are looking for a radical retelling of the frog prince fairytale, this is not it.
We have a king (King Gordo, to be precise, played by Douglas Webster) who wants to marry off his daughter, Ember (Sophie MacKay, a true fairytale princess in the making). We have the neighboring kingdom’s arrogant prince (Arro, played eagerly by Keaton Fields) who is turned into a frog by a Maleficent-esque villain, Gladys (Emily Sahler), who wants to be queen.
And we have the usual frog-prince narrative engine – wherein a humbling physical transformation leads to life lessons and an ennobling inner transformation, which allows him to break the curse and be a charming prince through and through. Of course Frog-boy is stuck without the kissable Princess Ember, who in this telling was a childhood friend-turned-enemy of the prince but – not noticing any resemblance – gets along swimmingly with the frog. The main twist here is the inclusion of a gang of forest friends who help Arro in his pond-to-palace journey: Benny Beaver (Eric Zulu), Sheldon the Snail (Troy Sawyer), and Granny Raccoon (Melissa Standley), each of whom brings an entirely different comic style to the delightful trio (think Timon and Pumba from The Lion King, to keep the Disney references going).
But with the promise of something entirely different right there at the top, it’s hard not to notice that the story sticks stubbornly to the usual frog-prince outlines and to fairytale conventions in general. I am sure I wasn’t the only one who predicted the ending about 10 minutes into the first act. And, oh, that unfortunate first act. Made sluggish by too many songs that do too little, it moves at Sheldon the Snail’s pace.
Despite being such a familiar story, The Kiss can be hard to follow. Some of that’s a mere technical problem, with the pre-recorded instrumental tracks mixed too loud for the singers (on opening weekend, at least), making lyrics hard to hear. But at times the storytelling itself is fuzzy and under-explained. For example, Gladys, the tale’s witchy antagonist, has a history with King Gordo, which she relates in the song “The Crown that Shoulda Been Mine.” But neither her backstory nor her revenge plot quite comes into focus (her evil plan involves bumping off Ember, but how would this make her Queen while Gordo’s still around?)
The cast delivers some solid acting, singing, and dancing (with choreography of this large cast by Erin Shannon): MacKay has the voice of a Disney princess and the acting chops to make Ember the sympathetic heart of the show. Sahler hits the right villainess notes and has the powerful voice to match. Zulu, Sawyer, and Standley are terrific as the forest trio, even when just using body language and facial expressions. And, oh my, if Collin Carver doesn’t steal the show as Gladys’s sidekick – a rat-turned-prince named Raoul. His performance as a mildly evil but severely cheese-addicted fraud is understated when it needs to be, and over-the-top when it calls for that. A definite scene-stealer without even trying.
It’s also easy to root for The Kiss as a passion project created by Will Vinton, the celebrated writer, creator, and Claymation filmmaker who died in 2018 and left this as his final project. His son, Jesse Vinton, took over writing the book with songwriter David Pomeranz and award-winning producer/director Greg Tamblyn (I still think about his gorgeous and haunting 2010 musical The Ghosts of Celilo all the time and hope for its return).
But perhaps this team was too focused on honoring Will Vinton’s vision to either change the story to a more modern retelling (is it wrong that I wanted Ember to marry the rat?) or to streamline and clarify so these more conventional sentiments have more impact. The show’s confident intro to the contrary, there’s not enough new or different about The Kiss. Unless you love traditional fairytales, you might pucker up only to find you’re left wanting.