St. James Theatre, 44th Street, New York
March 16, 2018
If ever a movie came with a guaranteed audience, it’s Frozen. Not only is Disney’s 2013 musical fantasy the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, its computer-aided design is a masterpiece of sheer craft while its focus on two strong women – or girls on the verge of womanhood – has earned it cult status among females from 4 to 40. Dressing up as Elsa or Anna is quite a thing, I’m reliably informed. Of course, like any good fairy tale – and Frozen is (very) loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – there is a message for all, men or women, boys or girls, young or old, gay or straight. With universal themes like head versus heart, safety versus risk, control versus spontaneity, Frozen has plenty to teach us, plus it’s a cracking good yarn, so what’s not to like about transplanting it from screen to stage?
The Company in Frozen. Photo © Deen van Meer
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. The original comes with snappy dialogue and a bag-full of chipper songs, one of which is a classic (Frozen won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, while the adrenalin-pumping Let It Go won Best Original Song). It also comes with trolls, an endearing reindeer and an animated snowman – in other words, it crackles with more magic than a game of Quidditch. Take care. Go dramatically off-piste or short change your audience at your peril. Happily, in the sure hands of British director Michael Grandage, Disney sails a steady course where humanity succeeds over mere effect and good old-fashioned theatricality triumphs over any temptation to overdo the technology. Oh, and it has a pretty flawless cast to boot.
The story is straightforward enough. Princess Elsa, heir to the throne of Arendelle has magic powers. As a child, she accidentally injures her younger sister Anna and their concerned parents call in Pabbie, the King of the Hidden People (here more like elves than the animation’s original trolls) to heal her and wipe her memory of Elsa’s magic. To learn to control her powers which, as in the movie, her parents consider a bad thing for reasons never fully explained, Elsa and Anna are separated. Elsa learns to button up, cocoon her hands in gloves, and generally keep it all in. The remainder of their childhood, during which their parents are drowned at sea, is sad and lonely.
Caissie Levy as Elsa in Frozen. Photo © Deen van Meer
On Elsa’s coronation day, Anna falls head over heels for the first man she meets, the rather-too-good-to-be-true Prince Hans of the Southern Isles. When Elsa refuses their request to marry, Anna is upset and in the ensuing argument Elsa’s icy powers are revealed, causing her to flee from her frightened subjects, shut herself up in an impregnable ice-palace, and blanket the kingdom in frost and snow. Anna’s quest to bring her home, aided by newly redundant ice-harvester Kristoff, his faithful reindeer Sven, and talking snowman Olaf, occupies the bulk of the story. By the time it’s all over we’ve learned that first impressions can often be deceptive, and that magic, properly applied, can be a good thing after all.
There are, of course, other take homes from Frozen, not the least of which is that the love of sister for sister beats all others. We also learn that dangerous isn’t always the flipside of safe and that Elsa and Anna needn’t be polar (forgive the pun) opposites forever. Grandage’s skill lies in recognising that in order to finesse some fairly subtle and weighty points, he needs to leave sufficient space around the drama to give his audience some thinking time. In this he is aided by Jennifer Lee’s shapely book and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s feel-good music and lyrics. Lee, who wrote the original screenplay, has added just enough to flesh out the characters and storyline while retaining the animation’s most quoted one-liners. There are new bits too. Anna and Kristoff bickering on the ice bridge is a nice touch, but the comedy gold award has to go to an expanded shopkeeper scene, which culminates in a sauna kick line – Rob Ashford’s choreography superbly energetic throughout – complete with a cheeky fan dance employing those wicked-looking birch whisks your average naked Scandinavian traditionally uses to ‘massage’ and stimulate the skin.
Jelani Alladin as Kristoff, Patti Murin as Anna in Frozen. Photo © Deen van Meer
Although it seems longer, the animated Frozen only contains 23 minutes of song. The stage show’s extra running time allows Lopez and Lopez, the wife and husband team behind the original, to expand on their earlier thoughts – the opening sequence incorporating Do You Want to Build a Snowman and For the First Time in Forever feels like a proper musical prologue à la Les Mis – while adding some catchy new material like Anna and Kristoff’s upbeat What Do You Know About Love? and Hygge, the aforementioned song for the shopkeeper and his sauna-loving relatives. Stephen Oremus’s orchestrations are tastefully done with accordion, mandolin and some traditional Norwegian-inspired opening vocals helping the Scandinavian atmosphere.
Christopher Oram’s multi-layered set, beautifully lit by Natasha Katz, encapsulates the feel of the original designs, while incorporating a plethora of traditional stage effects – flats, drop curtains, footlights – and an array of ‘special effects’ many of which are rooted in Victorian traditions of magic and illusion. The ice palace is gorgeous, but well before that, small children around me were gazing transfixed, and since this is a no spoiler review, I’ll just say there are some neatly done gasp-out-loud moments of trickery and a jaw-dropping ‘how the hell did they do that?’ blockbuster that brings Act I to a well-deserved climax. I’ll confess, the excitement of it all brought a lump to my throat.
Patti Murin as Anna and John Riddle as Hans in Frozen. Photo © Deen van Meer
The original animation’s blend of computer-generated imagery with traditional hand-drawn illustrations is pure genius, accounting for a great deal of its appeal. The subtleties of facial expression achieved, especially for the Anna and Elsa characters, are frequently heart-breaking. The lead actors, then, are really up against it as far as those legions of fans are concerned. Fear not. Caissie Levy’s straitjacketed Elsa is a model of chilly restraint, her palpable fears – “It’s dangerous to dream,” she frets – concealed just beneath the surface. Patti Murin works hard as an endearingly enthusiastic, borderline goofy Anna – “I’m not the heir, I’m the spare,” she blurts. Her comedic skills are razor sharp, her emotional nerve-ends frequently laid bare.
Vocally, Levy deftly blends a dash of rock and roll with an immaculate musical theatre instrument, pulling back cleanly to express her guarded side, yet possessing the money notes to storm the heavens in a show-stopping Let It Go. Murin is less of a natural belter, but she savvily mines the lyrics for all they are worth. Neither actor is exactly a teenager, a fact that might come as a surprise at first, but each is adept at expressing what it means to be one. In other words, they do what all good actors do.
Caissie Levy as Elsa in Frozen. Photo © Deen van Meer
As an added bonus, the girls who play Young Anna and Young Elsa – Mattea Conforti and Ayla Schwartz at this performance – are pitch perfect. Conforti breaks hearts as her enthusiasm to build a snowman turns to ashes outside her sister’s bedroom door, while Conforti displays an impressive maturity contending with her magic powers and the angst of her overprotective parents. Both sing like angels.
The rest of the cast has been neatly-chosen to make Arendelle a diverse as well as a magical place. Jelani Alladin is a warmly endearing Kristoff with a heartfelt baritone and lashings of Jack the Lad charm. His love/hate/love relationship with Anna and his friendship with Sven –a sympathetic Andrew Pirozzi in a back-breaking one-man reindeer suit – are appealingly handled. Greg Hildreth works hard as the singing and dancing actor behind Olaf the snowman, a tricky stretch of the imagination as, unlike usual black-clad puppeteers he has nowhere to hide. It works, just, and his beach fantasy – In Summer – is lovingly and cleverly recreated from the movie. John Riddle creates a more angular, interesting Prince Hans than the smoother animated version, making him a winning partner for Anna and her wacky ways. Love Is An Open Door is delightfully pulled off by both. However, perhaps because 99 percent of the audience know the plot already, the final reveal doesn’t work nearly as well as it does the first time you see the film. It’s a rare moment that could use some work.
Jelani Alladin as Kristoff, Patti Murin as Anna and Company in Frozen. Photo © Deen van Meer
Kevin Del Aguila makes a compelling Oaken, the charming-schmarming shop keeper you never quite trust. A natural communicator, his audience-addressed Act II opener is a class act. Ann Sanders and James Brown III make what they can of their 10 minutes as Elsa and Anna’s parents, while Timothy Hughes stands out as an authoritative Pabbie. A watchable Robert Creighton is a less elderly Duke of Weaselton (sorry, Weselton) than his animated counterpart, but nevertheless works hard to make his mark in a role that you can’t help feeling, as in the movie, is underdeveloped.
The stage at the St. James Theatre is surprisingly modest for such a big show – rumour has it that its budget weighs in at $25 to $30m – but a little intimacy helps to throw the focus onto the storytelling and ramp up that special kind of Broadway energy you really don’t get anywhere else. I gather illegal downloads made the movie of Frozen the second-most-infringed film of 2014. Thankfully that can’t apply to a stage show, and Frozen, the Broadway Musical, I can happily say, is worth every penny of its ticket price.
Frozen is at the St. James Theatre, 44th Street, New York