Just before the start of a recent performance of Frozen, Disney’s winter blast in a two-decade flurry of remaking Broadway in its own animated image, a tiny girl a row back explained to the adult next to her that the blue and purple lights washing the stage weren’t just any blue and purple lights. “They’re the Northern Lights,” she explained with considerable authority. “It’s in the movie.”
Talk about expectations. More than a billion of ’em, if you’re measuring by revenue generated from the massively successful 2013 film, a movie that rewrote at least one Disney convention — no kissing prince needed to wake up any Frozen beauty — and, in “Let It Go,” gave our showtune songbook an anthem of self-acceptance and defiance powerful (and catchy) enough to muscle its way next to Dreamgirls‘ “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and La Cage aux Folles‘ “I Am What I Am.”
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The Oscar-winning, career-making song written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez now takes a rightful spot just before intermission, and it concludes the first act of Broadway’s Frozen at the St. James Theatre with every flash of dazzle and gumption the kids in the audience deserve and adults hope for. Performed by Caissie Levy as Elsa, the tale’s self-exiled, magic-spilling snow queen, “Let It Go” does what all good, over-played tunes must: It sounds fresh as — what else? — fallen snow.
Directed by Tony winner Michael Grandage (Red), the stage Frozen, opening tonight, doesn’t consistently live up to “Let It Go,” its book by Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) often feeling rushed, more concerned with hitting the movie’s beats come hell or cold water than taking the time to just enjoy the characters that the audience is primed to love.
That’s particularly true of the tale’s central bond, the sisterly love that’s meant to prove more enduring and redemptive than anything some fly-by-night prince has to offer. This despite fine, beautifully voiced performances (the funny Patti Murin plays Anna, the plucky younger “spare to the heir” sister).
Quick recap: Frozen, loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s woodsy, Norwegian fairy tale The Snow Queen, tells the once-upon-a-time story beginning when, as children, the magical Elsa, who hasn’t learned to control her powers, inadvertently harms little Anna with a sudden blast of cold that freezes the doting child’s heart. To prevent a repeat, the girls’ king-and-queen parents separate the kids — each to a different part of the castle — until they can find a solution.
But then the parents go and die unexpectedly — an event presented here with clever choreography but little sting — and the girls are left to grow into young adulthood on their own, literally. They don’t come face to face until Coronation Day, when Elsa comes of age to take the crown and rule the queendom.
With the castle doors finally open to outsiders, at least for party day, trouble arrives in the form of a handsome but awkward prince, Anna’s love-at-first-sight match. When Elsa angrily refuses to give her blessing to the just-met couple, she momentarily loses control of her powers, setting off an eternal, harsh winter throughout the land. She flees the scared, furious mob to take refuge in an ice palace of her own making, where she can be herself and let it … you know.
Anna, accompanied by a small posse of pals — friendly mountain man Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), his reindeer Sven (Andrew Pirozzi) and snowman Olaf (Greg Hildreth) — embarks on a quest to find her sister, setting off the adventure that takes up much of Act II.
Exactly how far Anna has to travel is never made entirely clear here, largely due to a stage-bound claustrophobia that Grandage doesn’t overcome. We see lots of running back and forth across the set, along with some nifty and trapeze-like bridge-crossing, but Anna and her pals’ adventure lacks the journey-like feel of the film or Dorothy’s trip along the Yellow Brick Road. The stakes seem so much lower than they should.
That goes double for the emotional road these sisters should be traveling. Their early separation happens so quickly, and with so little bite, that the girls seem not so much heartbroken as slightly peeved. Unlike the best Disney classics, this Frozen seems too timid to go scary (even the movie’s Marshmallow the snow monster is nowhere to be found), seriously underestimating children’s willingness to explore the darker recesses of any fairy tale castle.
There’s not so much as a dusting of real poignance when Elsa and Anna reconnect on Coronation Day, and when they finally stare down their foes (and their own history), the denouement barely cracks through the winter ice.
But what lovely winter. Frozen‘s design team — Wolf Hall‘s Christopher Oram on sets and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting — produces some gorgeous work here, creating the show’s necessary magic and Nordic beauty from so many starry lights and frosty windows. Through a combination of video design (Finn Ross) and special effects (Jeremy Chernick), the freezing-over required whenever Elsa’s magic slips out — icy crackles, crystal stalagmites — is no less impressive for skipping the avant-garde reach of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King.
There is one touch of the Lion here, though: the costume-puppet hybrid of Sven the Reindeer, easily the most impressive of the onstage creatures. Powered by a single actor (Andrew Pirozzi at the reviewed performance), the silent, four-legged, realistic beast is a marvel, much more memorable than the cartoon-like Olaf the Snowman marionette. Identical in appearance to the movie version, Olaf is operated onstage by the unhidden actor Greg Hildreth. Tip: Get your visual fill of the puppet for the first five or 10 minutes, then focus on the subtle movements and expressions of Hildreth.
Just as in the film, Olaf has one of the lighter, more overtly comic of the Anderson-Lopez & Lopez tunes: “In Summer.” All of the film’s songs are here, plus an additional dozen (check out the concert video for the new “Monster” below), making for a musical that, like most Disney productions, is never less than competent and frequently much more. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?,” sung by the terrific Mattea Conforti and Ayla Schwartz as the young Anna and Elsa, respectively, remains one of the more charming, and only the the newly added, comically jaunty “Hygge” — this production’s attempt at a “Hakuna Matata” — wears itself thin as the second act’s big opening number.
Still, it’s “Let It Go” that, musically anyway, steals the show, and Levy doesn’t let it down. As with many of the Elsa numbers, the actress is alone, sharing the stage only with the flashing lights and icy video effects that convey her magic. As with most of Frozen, that’s enough.
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