This was going to be an exciting evening at the theatre for me. Not for the reason you might first expect, but for another, because this time would be the first time I was going to the theatre with my young niece, Hazel, just the two of us. This was not her first time in a Broadway house, mind you, she had sat on my lap while watching Cinderella a few years back at the Broadway Theatre (currently the home of Rocktopia), and my guest to see Annie at the Paper Mill Playhouse last fall, so she knows the ropes and how to behave, but this was the first time that Mother Cheryl wasn’t sitting close by. This time, Hazel was dropped off and her parents watched as us enter the St. James Theatre, on our own, primed and excited to see the new Disney Broadway musical, Frozen. We sat in heightened anticipation, watching the Northern Lights dance across the curtain, with Hazel so excited she didn’t want to close her eyes, in case she might miss something.
The musical, as I’m sure everyone is well aware, is based on the ever-so popular animated movie that is one of Hazel’s favorite sing-along stories. With music and lyrics by the fantastic team that brought you the animated movie musicals, ‘Coco‘(Oscar Award for Best Original Song: “Remember Me“) and ‘Frozen’ (Oscar and Grammy Award for “Let It Go“) and a book by Jennifer Lee, the talented Oscar-winning writer of Walt Disney’s ‘Frozen‘, which she also directed with Chris Buck, this Broadway adaptation was the perfect show for young Hazel, it gave her everything she could have hoped for, a story line she knew, some great songs that she loves and knows by heart, but what it didn’t really give her is the idea that you can have something as wonderful as the film ‘Frozen‘ and spin it far beyond the land of serviceable, and into a new realm, one that is artistically creative, advancing, and expanding. For that, we will have to go see Julie Taymor’s Lion King, because invention and dynamic wonderment isn’t going to be found under the standardized snowy landscapes of director Michael Grandage’s creation, Frozen, the Broadway Musical.
All the main ingredients are present though. The wonderfully regal Elsa, played strongly at first by the young Brooklyn Nelson (Mathilda), morphing into the impressive and very talented Caissie Levy (Broadway’s 2014 Les Misérables, Ghost, Public’s First Daughter Suite). Her strong voice and presence add weight and beauty to the lovely new song, “Dangerous to Dream” and the one Hazel and everyone else was breathlessly waiting for “Let It Go“, which was skin-tingling in its dramatic rendition. Bravo Caissie. And even though I’m still attached to Idina Menzel’s brilliant version, especially in the way she closes the song on that perfect last line reading, Levy doesn’t disappoint one audience member. Hazel was awe-struck, wide-eyed and unbelieving, writing in her wonderful review: “If you blink while Elsa changes, you’ll miss it, cause it just falls and it happens really fast…She changes from her queen dress to an icy beautiful dress….I liked the play ALOT!”
But for me, the joy of the evening lies in the hands of both the young and soon-to-be a star, Mattea Conforti (Sunday in the Park with George), and the most wonderful Patti Murin (Broadway’s Lysistrata Jones), who brings such fun and frolic to the young sister, Anna. In Murin’s portrayal, the piece finds its connection and attachment, falling in love with her goofiness and sense of wonder just as fast as she falls in love with Hans during the wacky and wonderful number, “Love Is an Open Door“. John Riddle (Broadway’s The Visit), who plays the handsome too-good-to-be-true Prince of the Southern Isles, convinces us at the beginning that he is her shining knight, just like we are told in the fairy tale books, even though somewhere in the back of our minds, we are well aware how this will all turn out in the end. He’s a bit too stiff in his other moments, especially his signature song, “Hans of the Southern Isles” but together with Anna, we join in their fun, embracing each and every hilarious pun and jokie playful grimace that Murin gives us on that wonderfully expressive and elastic face of hers.
It is when she finally engages with the absolutely heart-melting Jelani Alladin (Signature’s Sweetee), giving a comically gentle and engaging performance as the lowly ice merchant Kristoff, that the romantic tugging starts and the slim storyline finds its warm heart, especially in the very enjoyable added song, “What Do You Know About Love?“. That, alongside one of my favorites, “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People“, make us glad that Kristoff, and his most amazing, trustworthy, and sadly under-used Sven, created impressively by Andrew Pirozzi (NBC’s “Hairspray Live!“), make us glad his sled has arrived into the land of Arendelle, and even more joyful that Anna runs into him on those snowy slopes.
Along side these main characters, magic is the central core of this show, and some of it can be found in a few other nicely structured and appealing representations from the film. The second act opener, “Hygge“, lead by Oaken, hilariously portrayed by Kevin Del Aguila (Broadway’s Peter and the Starcatcher) is great fun and a joy to behold. The King and Queen of the Trolls are magnificently reinterpreted by the impressive Timothy
Hughes (Broadway’s Chaplin) and Olivia Phillip (Broadway’s Waitress) in their joyful number, “Fixer Upper“. Hazel wrote that she “loved the part when the trolls helped Anna’s frozen head“, it was one of the truly inspired magical moments of creation that lifted up the standard to the spectacular, giving us a new vantage point over the snowy slopes of Frozen.
Olaf, created by master puppet designer, Michael Curry, (Lion King) works fairly well and totally looks the part, but is sadly just mediocre in conceptualization. The manipulations and performance by Greg Hildreth (Roundabout’s The Robber Bridegroom) as that comic sidekick snowman serves the grander structure well, is playful and fun, especially in his fun rendition of “In Summer“, but for some reason, the separation of puppeteer and puppet never really seems complete.
In some way, this is very representational of the whole production. Director Grandage (West End’s Merrily We Roll Along, Broadway’s Frost/Nixon), with some help from choreographer Rob Ashford (Park Ave Armory’s Macbeth, Broadway’s Evita), set and costume designer, Christopher Oram (Broadway’s Wolf Hall Parts 1 &2) with special effects by Jeremy Chernick, lighting by Natasha Katz, sound design by Peter Hylenski, and video design by Finn Ross fail to add that extra layer of magic that would take this show from a very acceptable adaptation of an animated film into something that could stand on its own two feet. Without the memory of the better film propping it up and attracting a crowd, Frozen wouldn’t be the success it is destined to be because it rarely steps beyond the expected. As Hazel writes: “The voices and clothes were awesome” and I agree whole heartedly, but without the added layer of snowy surprise and excitement, the musical stays somewhere just above a theme park ride or stage show, barely reaching above the standard. We needed visionary stage magic to lift us up, not a snowflake patterned curtain of crystals or some ice shards jutting out from the side in a feeble attempt to frighten. Elsa’s dangerous abilities are much more dynamic and dangerous than that, and with the rather simplistic representations, we are never transformed or dazzled into submission.
The story line is pretty straight forward, just as it is in the movie, which in itself is a bit messy and oddly nonsensical. But for me the subtext of this tale is the most fascinating part: the story of a young person being seen by her parents as containing a quality that makes her different from the rest, and instead of encouraging her to embrace it and be proud, she is told, quite plainly, to “keep it inside” and hide it away. When her secret finally comes out, literally, she has to run away and create her own kingdom where she can embrace her specialness and be herself. Her sister follows her trying to convince her that she can and will be accepted back home, but it takes a special act of courage and true love to finally come home and be accepted by her community. Once she is, she finally feels some freedom to be herself and can rejoin the family that she almost discarded. In all honesty, and this has been said a thousand times before, it sounds like any number of coming out stories I have heard over the years from members of the LGBT community regarding their childhood and young adulthood experiences, and why big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are seen as gay meccas and safe kingdoms for escape. I will say that I think it’s a fascinating parallel and one wisely told, but a bit problematic in that Elsa has no romanic prospects or future partnership plans. She is given just a life of regal solitude basking in the loving relationship that she can watch from the sidelines of her more ‘normal’ younger sister and her partnership and romantic life.
But I might be asking a bit too much from a Disney musical adaptation from an animated kids movie musical (or am I?). It seems this Broadway stage tale had a hard enough time finding the little magic it did in this transfer, and although the legions of adoring fans will gather and make this musical a hit, I’m not sure it will rise up to the regal levels of other Broadway royals, like The Lion King or even Aladdin. It’s definitely not a Tarzan, the disastrous 2006 adaptation directed and designed by Bob Crowley, just a purely serviceable Disney adaptation of the most successful animated movie of all time. And it will be a hit, no matter what any one says.
Regardless, this was an awesome night for Hazel and myself, the first of, what I hope will be many when my young theatre-junkie in-the-making will accompany me to the theatre for future plays and musicals. Soon she will be old enough to take the train in all by herself, just to meet me for pre-theatre dinner and then a Broadway show. But for now, it was with great pleasure that I was able to have her as my +1 and share with her a show that she loves and adores; “I really liked this play!!!!!!!!!” I just had to make sure she didn’t join in with the actors, and start to sing along with Elsa when that epic song, “Let It Go” concluded the first act and filled the air with anticipation and excitement. She was not disappointed, she was elated.