It’s hard to think of a new show that has landed on Broadway with more hype behind it than Frozen. There are blockbuster movies that become musicals, sure. There are productions that come in supported by years, sometimes even decades, of Disney marketing muscle and merchandising might, of course. And there are shows that arrive with a blizzard of great word-of-mouth from pre-Broadway tryouts, if their producers are lucky. But it’s rare, almost impossible, for something to come in with all three. (Granted: Harry Potter next month, too.) And so here we are, at last, with this stage spectacular freshly opened at the venerable St. James Theatre, recently rebuilt to accommodate it.
And it’s… fine. Not transcendent, not even great. Frozen is solid.
For all the talent that went into it, for all its princesses and folk tales, for all its soaringly anthemic letting-go, Frozen, it turns out, is awfully earthbound. It’s a dark story, both in mood and in stage design, that stubbornly resists the usual megamusical temptation to soar. The very excited little girl across the aisle from me was fast asleep before the end of Act One.
Her snooze was a decent commentary, but also a shame. Even if the musical never quite lets go, it also has a lot going for it, including some excellent performances, beginning with its leading ladies.
I’ve no doubt seen the movie fewer times, and longer ago, than that little girl has. But what stood out most for me in the musical is how much Frozen is Anna’s story. Her sister, Elsa, the icy queen, gets the attention and the big number, but the story is Anna’s quest, to find her sister, to find out the family’s secrets, to save the kingdom, to pick the right man. And Patti Murin is perfect in it. She’s warm and funny, confident and plucky. She goes all in for the physical humor in Anna’s awkwardness, but she’s got the pipes to deliver her big numbers.
Caissie Levy, as Elsa, has the more challenging part. She gets the signature song, but she spends much of the show hiding from attention. For all her talent and beauty—when Elsa embraces her iciness and comes downstage with platinum hair and a silvery gown, she’s rocking eighties Brigitte Nielsen glamour—Levy’s is a character who evades your grasp and so it is a performance that eludes focus. She’s good but distant. Love may be a force of nature, as the show’s tagline insists, but her “Let It Go” is not.
Jelani Alladin, whose name makes it seemingly inevitable that he’d be making his Broadway debut in a Disney musical, plays Kristoff, the ice seller and decent guy who joins Anna on her quest to find Elsa and ends up falling in love with her. He’s winning and charismatic, but the star sidekick is Greg Hildreth, the human actor who voices and puppets the goofy snowman Olaf. It’s a tough trick, taking a creation that only works as animation and rendering it corporeal. A wry, bemused Hildreth, with a big assist from puppet designer Michael Curry, pulls it off delightfully, half the time forget the man standing there operating the puppet and half the time making you revel in seeing the man behind the metaphorical curtain.
I missed the Broadway Beauty and the Beast, and so this is the first Disney Theatricals production I’ve seen that aims to bring Disney’s classic magical kingdoms from film to stage, from animation to reality. It’s fun to see how Christopher Oram’s set and costume design manages that transition, creating tall and ominous eaved sets, with gowns and liveries for the princesses and courtiers.
There’s a similar animated-to-real challenge in Elsa’s icy powers: How do you ice over a stage set? It’s pulled off here with projections and some sound effects (the special effects design is by Jeremy Chernick and the video design by Finn Ross). This is both slightly cool—crinkle crinkle the whole set instantly turns to ice—and also slightly lame: Elsa’s awesome powers would seem to deserve a more impressive and show-shopping manifestation than a little bit of projected CGI.
The movie’s creators, scriptwriter Jennifer Lee and songwriters (and musical-theater powerhouses) Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have reworked the film for the stage version. There are many new songs, including the early “A Little Bit of You,” reprised throughout, that both explains the creation of Olaf and also builds a connection, to be later severed and then rebuilt, between the sisters. That fits into the revised book, which aims to deepen their relationship, further explain their scars, and strengthen them for this me-too era.
(Really, it seems built for the talk-therapy era: Frozen’s ultimate point is that mom and dad’s insistence on hiding Elsa’s powers caused all the trouble; they should have just talked about it. Which draws a straight line back to Judd Hirsch’s fuzzily besweatered salvation of Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, rescuing him from his own repressive ice queen, Mary Tyler Moore.)
The director Michael Grandage has spoken about the Shakespearian themes he saw and underlined in Frozen. That might be the problem. There’s a long (and profitable) history of dark children’s fantasy stories. But it’s usually a darkness leavened with a gleeful sort of wonder. (Matilda, recently, comes to mind.) This isn’t. Alex Timbers, who did the delightful Peter and the Starcatcher with Disney, was early on attached to direct Frozen, and one wonders what sort of whimsy he’d have whipped up.
As it is, we’re left with a would-be blockbuster that’s good but not great, skillful but not memorable. The little girl across from me dozed, but also, out in the lobby, the merch seemed to move swiftly. The true tween fans will likely be reasonably sated. They’re getting to see Elsa in person, and a pan never bothered them anyway.
Frozen opened March 22, 2018, at the St. James Theatre. Tickets and information: frozenthemusical.com.