(l to r) Caissie Levy and Patti Murin in ‘Frozen.’ (Photo: Deen van Meer)
By Matthew Wexler
Oh, ye of Disney disillusionment… let it go. It’s been 24 years since the mega brand first arrived on Broadway with the stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, which was based on the 1991 animated film. The formula has worked well, and since that time, Disney Theatrical Productions has achieved substantial commercial success, with titles such as The Lion King, Aida, and Aladdin (among others) reaching worldwide audience upwards of 19 million people.
Some might want to leave Elsa and her sister out in the cold. Disney’s relationship with Broadway has occasionally been a tumultuous one, with various contract battles throughout the years between unions and the parent company, recently valued at $92.5 billion. But this time around, many of Frozen’s actors will be snuggling warmly in front of the fireplace with a profit-sharing deal that includes a $400 increase in weekly salaries and adds the promise of 0.5 percent of net profits from the first three English-language productions for the first ten years of profitability. Now that’s a magic kingdom.
None of this might matter to parents of screeching children who beg to see Elsa live on stage, or to the D23 fan club members scrambling to the robust concession stand with a queue longer than Penn Station at rush hour to horde dolls, teacups, and tiaras. But for those (like myself) who have approached past Disney musicals with subtle skepticism, Frozen’s sweeping theatricality, diverse casting, and message of female empowerment is a blast of crisp, wintry air.
Elsa (Ayla Schwartz) and her sister Anna (Mattea Conforti) are living the royal high life in Arendelle with their parents King Agnarr (James Brown III) and Queen Iduna (Ann Sanders). But when Elsa’s pent-up emotions get the best of her, things get icy, and she ends up freezing things, including her younger sister’s heart. The parents set off for a cure, only to die en route, leaving the now grown Elsa (Caissie Levy) to inherit the throne while Anna (Patti Murin) pouts about, wondering why her sister has—quite literally—been giving her the cold shoulder for the past 15 years.
After losing her temper in a most cataclysmic way upon learning that Anna wants a shotgun wedding with Hans (John Riddle), a suitor she just met at the coronation ball, Elsa banishes herself to a spectacular self-made ice castle (with a bit of help from what looks like a Swarovski crystal sample sale). Anna hits the frozen tundra in search of her sister, meeting up with vagabond and ice dealer Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), his reindeer Sven (Andrew Pirozzi), and a smart-talking snowman, Olaf (Greg Hildreth).
Jennifer Lee wrote the screenplay for the film and has adapted Frozen for the stage, along with original composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who have bolstered the film’s score with nearly a dozen new songs. More time is spent at the story’s beginning to lay the groundwork for Elsa and Anna’s strained relationship. Christopher Oram’s scenic and costume design deliver a brooding and lush sensibility, accentuated by Natasha Katz’s heavily shadowed lighting. Once the spell is cast and the adventure begins, things lighten up significantly in the reflective sunshine of frozen Arendelle. Audiences can expect magical flourishes throughout, including ascending icicles, instantaneous costume changes, eye-popping video projections, and yes, even snow. Yet beneath the multi-million-dollar theatrics, director Michael Grandage is able to cultivate a touching sororal bond between Elsa and Anna.
Levy, who last appeared on Broadway as the consumptive Fantine in Les Misérables, owns Elsa’s power and misunderstood vulnerability. She has the technical skill to deliver the musical’s most anticipated number, “Let it Go,” but smartly uses restraint to throw down the vocal gauntlet sparingly. While Elsa powers down her emotions as a defense mechanism, Anna wears hers on her sleeve. Murin is infectiously quirky, with a mischievous physicality and boundless energy that keeps Frozen’s familiar plot skating forward.
Frozen works hard to keep balance on its theatrical ice, navigating between what some might consider the sisters’ childhood psychological trauma and what Disney audiences expect. The latter is abundantly fulfilled with Olaf’s scenically bloated Act I dream number, “In Summer,” and the silly and somewhat esoteric “Hygge,” which opens Act II. The Danish word, which defies English translation but ultimately implies a sort of warm coziness, has been a hotbed topic in the travel and lifestyle industry for several years. Here, it provides fodder for trading post owner Oaken (Kevin Del Aguila) and a chorus of nude-ish Scandinavians enjoying a winter sauna. Choreographer Rob Ashford takes it in stride, and at least the number is in the ballpark of Frozen’s Nordic sensibility, unlike “Fixer Upper” featuring Hidden Folk (portrayed as trolls in the film), which feels like it’s been plucked from a Zulu African tribe.
Elsa says early on, “I’m not as cold as I seem.” Neither is Frozen. Its message of sisterly love is refreshingly heartwarming, proving that you don’t need a man to save the day and a make-believe land like Arendelle can reflect the diversity of the world that created it.
St. James Theatre
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