British director Michael Grandage seems a strange choice for this musical, originally inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” as his forte has been contemporary plays like Frost/Nixon, Red, The Cripple of Inishmaan and such classics as Hamlet, Mary Stuart and Hughie. His staging is rather heavy in the style of a 19th century operetta; although Rob Ashford’s lively choreography goes a long way to animating the musical numbers. Grandage’s New York musical works, Evita on Broadway and Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera, failed to impress. Nevertheless, Frozen still offers an absorbing and compelling story and the opulent production with its many scenes is engrossing.
And how do you turn the stage to an icy winter as happened in the movie? The snow scenes and the frozen transformations which include special effects by Jeremy Chernick and video design by Finn Ross are successful without taking your breath away, while Olaf’s colorful dream of summer brings some needed warmth to the story. Director, choreographer and music director stay out of the way of the singers when they have a song to deliver in the extensive score with the large cast of 36, backed by 21 musicians.
For those who have not seen the movie, young Princess Elsa, heir to the throne of Arendelle, grows up alongside her younger sister princess Anna with a secret: she has cryokinetic powers and can turn things to ice. One night playing at snowmen with Anna, she accidentally unleashes her power and causes Anna to freeze. After the Shaman of the Hidden Folk undoes the magic, King Agnarr and Queen Iduna decide that the girls will grow up apart and they close the castle to visitors. The parents die at sea leaving the girls more isolated, and Elsa’s powers increase as she grows up and she becomes more fearful.
When she turns 21, Elsa is to be crowned Queen and the palace must be opened for the first time in ten years for her Coronation. Anna, who has grown up without playmates, is thrilled to meet Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, and they accidentally fall into the sled of Kristoff, the ice harvester, before declaring their love for each other. All goes well until Anna and Hans ask for Queen Elsa’s blessing for their impending marriage. When Elsa refuses because they only know each other one day, Anna pulls off her glove and startled Elsa unleashes an eternal winter in Arendelle.
Horrified at what she has done, Elsa flees to the mountains to live in an ice palace of her own making, with Anna in hot pursuit, leaving Prince Hans in charge of Arendelle. Along the way Anna meets the friendly Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, the snowman Olaf created by her sister, and they pay a visit to Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post, and Pabbie and the Hidden Folk who brought up Kristoff. Hans and the Duke of Weselton show their true colors and connive to capture Elsa who accidentally unleashes more evil magic. In a surprise ending, “an act of true love” sets everything right in the manner of classic fairy tales.
The best songs remain the ones from the movie (“Let It Go,” “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?,” “For the First Time in Forever,” “Love Is an Open Door,” “Reindeers are Better than People,” “Fixer Upper” not all in the same order as in the film) aside from a new song for Elsa (“Monster”) which gives her psychological depth as she delineates her fears, doubts and anxieties. The rest of the new songs are either very prosy as if it was felt necessary to explain things or as window decoration where a song wasn’t needed. The new production number “Hygge,” sung by Oaken (Kevin Del Aguila) of the Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and friends is fun as staged by Ashford but only adds to the running time of the show. Both this song and “Fixer Upper” sung by the “Hidden Folk” led by Pabbie (Timothy Hughes), their Shaman, are very busy in their staging but keep the eyes occupied. Lee’s book is literate and lucid without being witty or penetrating. But the intended audience is most likely children and they won’t be disappointed with the storytelling.
Levy is rather staid as Elsa, not wooden but reserved and diffident, playing it close to the vest, so to speak. On the other hand, Patti Murin’s Anna who is really the show’s adventurous heroine is tremendously animated, joyful and vivacious in contrast to her dour sister who is trying to keep her secret from getting out. Her social awkwardness as she has never interacted with other people her own age is beautifully played with a sort of contriteness that she doesn’t know the rules.
Jelani Alladin’s jaunty Kristoff is quite charming in a self-effacing manner which makes him more endearing. As his pet reindeer Sven, Andrew Pirozzi is remarkably communicative and it is perfectly remarkable how he manipulates from within the costume to represent the four-legged creature. Even more delightful is Olaf, the exuberant and ebullient snowman, a giant puppet manipulated by Greg Hildreth who is very bubbly and animated though he has limited mobility to show expression. John Riddle as Prince Hans of the Southern Isles is both wooden and stiff when he should be charming, suave and nonchalant. Robert Creighton (of Cagney fame) is more successful as the treacherous Duke of Weselton. Hughes as Pabbie, King of the Hidden Folk, uses his impressive physicality to captivate in both his acting and dancing.
Frozen the Broadway Musical is a big lavish show which moves quickly in telling its iconic story. That it can’t entirely compete with the animated movie with its palette of colors is understandable: each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. The storytelling is fine and there is enough going on to keep young people engrossed while their parents can zero in on the lessons being taught. Frozen is not a T.K.O. but it is a memorable, enjoyable evening in the theater.
Frozen (closed March 11, 2020)
Disney Theatrical Productions
St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-870-2717 or visit http://www.frozenthemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission