What most engaged me about Frozen, if I’m honest, is Sven the reindeer. This said more than I initially realized about the Broadway musical adaptation of the highest-grossing animated film of all time.
Frozen features a terrific 40-member cast, led by Caissie Levy as Elsa the chilly princess with the ice-making powers, and Patti Murin as Anna, her younger and more sociable sister. The show doesn’t neglect “Let It Go,” the Oscar-winning song and pop music phenomenon composed by the extraordinary songwriting team, the married couple, EGOT winner Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (In Transit.) Right before intermission, Levy sang the song in front of a glimmering ice castle, Elsa magically changing before our eyes from her drab duds into a blindingly beautiful blue and silver gown. The house erupted into a standing ovation.
There is much for fans of the movie to applaud in this adaptation by Jennifer Lee, the movie’s co-screenwriter, and the Lopez family. The St. James Theater surges with talent as much as it billows with stage smoke.
Derived from the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Snow Queen,” the animated cartoon changed the focus to the two sisters. The Broadway musical makes other changes. The talking boulders are now Hidden Folk, wearing glow-in-the-dark beads, dressed in sexy, form-fitting indigenous people attire, and sporting tails.
The songwriters supplement their songs from the movie with 12 new ones. These include two pop ballads for Levy to belt, “Dangerous to Dream” and “Monster,” and a jaunty “What Do You Know About Love,” a playful duet between Anna and Kristoff (a silky-voiced Jelani Alladin), the ice peddler who is secretly in love with her.
If its DNA is indisputably Disney cartoon, it also shares so much with other, successful family musicals on the Great White Way that it’s hard not to be reminded of them in bits and pieces. Frozen begins with a chant (“Vuelie” the only holdover from the movie not written by the Lopezes) that recalls the beginning of The Lion King. Its complicated central relationship between two very different sisters, Elsa and Anna, recalls the complicated central relationship between two very different witches Elphaba and Glinda in Wicked, both offering important lessons in inclusiveness and female empowerment. Even the magical dress change in “Let It Go” is similar to one for Laura Osnes in Cinderella. Jeremy Chernick, who is credited with the special effects for Aladdin (and the forthcoming Harry Potter play) has done the special effects for Frozen. Michael Curry, collaborator with Julie Taymor on the amazing puppetry in The Lion King, designed the puppets in Frozen – most noticeably Olaf the snowman, visibly voiced and manipulated by a white-costumed Greg Hildreth…and Sven the reindeer.
I couldn’t stop watching Sven – with his expressive, blinking eyes, his twitchy ears, the authentic-looking use of all four legs. If you hadn’t read the program, you might wonder if there was a person in there, or if it is a state-of-the-art update of Disney animatronics – or could it possibly be some weird rescue animal trained by William Berloni? Even when he took his curtain call, Sven was in character, never taking off his head (which would have revealed that he is indeed portrayed by an actor, Andrew Pirozzi.)
There was something simple, clearly thought out, and heartfelt in Sven that seems more rare than it should be in Frozen, for all the Broadway musical marks it hits. It’s as if in striving and straining to give us a really big show, it skips over some storytelling and characterization that might have drawn some of us in more fully.
Some moments (and characters) you might think would be pivotal seem rushed. When the sisters are children (portrayed by Mattea Conforti and Ayna Schwartz), their royal parents, King Agnarr and King Iduna, tell them they are going on a trip for “a couple of weeks.” But they suddenly cross their arms and are lifted up by the ensemble. This is how we know they’ve died. Perhaps this is clever shorthand, but it left me bereft.
Then there’s the problem of Hans of the Southern Isles (John Riddle), who seems a Disney-appropriate boyfriend for Anna, until (spoiler alert) he turns on a dime into evil incarnate.
It seemed an odd choice to hire as director Michael Grandage, the former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London, whose forte is serious plays (on Broadway: Frost/Nixon, Red, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Hamlet!) But it winds up an ironic choice, since Grandage seems to go out of his way to avoid going in deep, opting instead for broad.
The most startling example of this is the playful number that opens Act II, entitled Hygge, which features a sauna proprietor named Oaken overseeing a kick line of naked sauna visitors coyly covering their private parts with tree branches, à la Gypsy Rose Lee. If this matters to anybody, they’re wearing nude suits. It’s Disney, after all.
Frozen is on stage at the St. James Theater (246 West 44th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036)
Tickets and details
Frozen . Book by Jennifer Lee; Music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Based on the Disney film written by Jennifer Lee. Directed by Michael Grandage; Choreographed by Rob Ashford. Scenic Design by Christopher Oram; Costume Design by Christopher Oram; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski; Video Design by Finn Ross; Puppet Design by Michael Curry; Hair Design by David Brian Brown; Makeup Design by Anne Ford-Coates. Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick. Musical supervision by Stephen Oremus. Featuring Caissie Levy as Elsa and Patti Murin as Anna, Jelani Alladin (Kristoff), Greg Hildreth (Olaf), John Riddle (Hans), Robert Creighton (Weselton), Kevin Del Aguila (Oaken), Timothy Hughes (Pabbie), Andrew Pirozzi (Sven), Audrey Bennett (Young Anna), Mattea Conforti (Young Anna), Brooklyn Nelson (Young Elsa), Ayla Schwartz (Young Elsa), Alyssa Fox (Elsa Standby), Aisha Jackson (Anna Standby) and Adam Jepsen (Sven Alternate), Alicia Albright, Tracee Beazer, Wendi Bergamini, Ashley Blanchet, James Brown III, Claire Camp, Lauren Nicole Chapman, Spencer Clark, Jeremy Davis, Kali Grinder, Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Zach Hess, Donald Jones, Jr., Nina Lafarga, Ross Lekites, Austin Lesch, Synthia Link, Travis Patton, Adam Perry, Jeff Pew, Olivia Phillip, Noah J. Ricketts, Ann Sanders, Jacob Smith and Nicholas Ward. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell