REVIEW: “Frozen” Disappoints
“Frozen”—Disney’s newest mega musical enterprise that opened tonight on Broadway—puts the much-beloved 2013 box office bonanza animated film on stage. And it seems to do not much more than that.
Unlike, I suspect, nearly everyone else seated at the St. James Theatre on the appropriately snowy evening I attended, I must confess I have not seen the movie. I decided to meet the musical on its own terms, free of preconception—but for the unavoidable knowledge of “Let It Go”, the catchy song sensation that made Idina Menzel a household name.
I quickly discovered, however, that I need not have intimate familiarity with the material to understand that the self-conscious and abundantly safe two-dimensional stage version, which reportedly cost some $25-30 million dollars to mount, lacks any grand gestures of sweeping inspiration or genuine smiles of magic, instead feeling mostly rote and composed by committee. This is a shame, because the project possessed abounding potential for a knockout adaptation.
As prescribed, Caissie Levy, who plays Elsa the “snow queen” and is simply stunning, does bring down the house with the act one closer of “Let It Go”; she also sings “Monster”, a fantastic and equally-as-good new song in act two that catapults the riveting, final portion of the show. It is in those last 30 minutes or so that “Frozen” soars, becoming wholly focused, dark, and epic for the first time, free of the fairy tale distraction and mindless fluff that has been added at every turn up to that point, perhaps in an effort to hide the thinness and simplicity of the underlying story.
I sorely wish the balance of the show was as thrilling and cohesive as its finale, but Disney clearly opted for easy brand satisfaction over artistic risk, cynically wagering that sacrificing a unified, daring, and unique voice for this property—as perhaps offered by Alex Timbers, the off-beat and highly inventive director who was fired from the project in 2016—was worth it to keep kids happy and move merchandise (there’s a handsome booth in the lobby with its own system of rope and stanchion for the anticipated throng). The hands of English director Michael Grandage, Timbers’ replacement, leave no fingerprints.
For those unfamiliar, “Frozen”, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” (1844), transports the audience to the fictional kingdom of Arendelle in Norway, telling the tale of two orphaned princesses: Elsa (Caissie Levy), heir to the throne who possesses a magical though uncontrolled (and never explained) power to create cold and ice, and her younger, feisty sister, Anna (Patty Murin). Separated by their parents throughout their childhood to protect Elsa from the danger of her magic, the sisters reunite for Elsa’s coronation at age 21, opening their reclusive court to the public for the first time in years.
At the celebration, Elsa accidentally reveals her magic before the assembled guests, is branded a monster, and flees to nearby North Mountain, subjecting Arendelle to an endless winter freeze. Anna goes off in search of her sister who is easily found, meeting an ice seller named Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), and his reindeer, Sven (Andrew Pirozzi, manning an impressive, four legged body puppet), and a cheerful snowman named Olaf (Greg Hildreth, controlling a less successful marionette). When the estranged sisters confront each other once more, Elsa unintentionally freezes Anna’s heart, casting a fatal spell that can only be undone by true love.
I can’t be the only person who hasn’t seen the movie, so I’ll stop the plot sharing there, but the twists that occur in act two are actually refreshing and heartfelt. “Frozen”, despite the clutter of romance and hijinks, is about the loving bond of sisterhood overcoming adversity and giving two women strength and community. When the focus is on the story and relationship between Elsa and Anna, the show begins to shine, but plot and song diversions pop up to kill momentum and muddy the overall tone and sensibility.
Pabbie, leader of the “hidden folk” (who I think are trolls?), tells Elsa and Anna’s parents early on that “the heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.” There is a lot of heart at the core of this new musical, but it could have benefitted from more head. The opening sequence—re-written for Broadway from the tryout in Denver—is an extended prologue that explores the origins of Elsa and Anna’s estrangement as children, but is too rushed and heavy-handedly expository, offering little definition or emotional grounding from which to build the remainder of the story.
The court sequences give content to the kingdom and are elegantly deep-toned and appropriately magisterial, but following Elsa’s departure, the balance of act one provides only further exposition and character introduction without giving any plot development upon which to hang the intermission, which, as a result, is wholly misplaced after “Let It Go”, letting the audience go before establishing specific conflict beyond the broader relationship arcs or elevating the stakes beyond what occurs at the coronation.
This baffling choice is only further compounded by the bizarrely sunny, and culturally inapposite, spoof-like act two opener featuring Oaken (Kevin Del Aguia), who runs a trading post, and a chorus line of nearly naked sauna-goers singing a German-sounding oom pah pah homage to the Danish sentiment of “hygge” (coziness). Another act two distraction is a big, bright production number featuring the “hidden folk” as they rib the proto-lovers Kristoff and Anna for being “fixer-uppers”. Never mind that, by this point, Anna has been placed under a deadly spell and needs urgent help.
The much celebrated (and awarded) songs by husband and wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“In Transit”) and Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon”), including some dozen new ones, are catchy but so musically diverse as to strain the definition of “score”. Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed the film, provides the book.
In putting “Frozen” on stage, the writers had an opportunity to dig deeper and delve into the roots of the material, but their efforts remain on the surface and are all too often culturally unspecific if not just confused. To their credit, Ms. Levy and Ms. Murin provide noteworthy performances as Elsa and Anna, giving weight and substance as best they can to otherwise fairytale-light characters. They are supported by a splendid cast and strong ensemble, well-staged in musical numbers by choreographer Rob Ashford who borrows heavily from Scandinavian inspiration, maypole and all.
The design of the production is as inconsistent as the tone—marrying Disney’s trademarked shiny theme park patina with dark and rich Nordic layers. There are a handful of visually arresting tableaus created throughout the show by set and costume designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Natasha Katz, anchored by the flickering green beauty of the Northern Lights dancing on the curtain and on the cyclorama upstage. But the biggest disappointment ends up being the competing representations of ice—rather central to the story—from fabric to lucite to video projections to Vegas-style curtains of Swarovski crystals, sometimes all appearing at once and none packing the “wow factor” they should.
Like any stage adaptation of a well-known Disney property, “Frozen” had the potential to be a blockbuster creative re-imagining like “The Lion King” or a lame misfire like “The Little Mermaid”. It turns out to be neither extreme, living in a comfortable space in between that is ably designed and wonderfully performed, but largely inert and dramatically ill-constructed. Judging by the cheers surrounding me, fans of the film will likely enjoy it, but those looking for a higher artistic achievement should search elsewhere.
Bottom Line: “Frozen”, the new musical based on Disney’s 2013 box office bonanza animated film, is a disappointing, self-conscious, and abundantly safe two-dimensional stage version of a two-dimensional cartoon, lacking grand gestures of sweeping inspiration or genuine smiles of magic, instead feeling mostly rote and composed by committee. You’re better off letting this one go.