The Broadway-bound musical version of Frozen premiered this week in Denver at the Buell Theater. Awards Daily TV’s Clarence Moye offers his take.
Let’s get this out of the way. Disney Theatrical’s new Broadway-bound production of the Oscar-winning Frozen will make a lot of money. No matter how much people profess to hate “Let It Go,” they will turn out in droves for this reimagined take on the original material. That it’s quite good will keep them coming back year after year. In fact, even based on an very early preview at Denver’s Buell Theater, Frozen may be one of the very best stage musicals Disney Theatrical has mounted. In some ways, it even matches the sheer spectacle inspired by its greatest triumph: The Lion King. Guaranteed that Broadway audiences won’t be letting it go any time soon once the final version hits New York in February 2018.
I shared this show with my 9-year-old daughter. She came to love movies right around Frozen‘s big moment. Yes, we listened to the soundtrack ad nauseam. Yes, we sang “Let It Go” about a thousand times on the way to school. My wife and I even bought an Anna coronation dress for her (gold star to you if you know what that looks like). So, it seemed perfectly fitting to share the experience with her. We hadn’t had a true father/daughter experience like this before. My son and I have dozens of bonding memories already. It was her turn.
Given that, on an entirely personal level, the Frozen experience was one I’ll never forget.
The film’s plot remains in tact with a few minor changes. Most notably, the trolls are gone. They’ve been replaced by a magical tribe of non-humans, one of whom guides us (perhaps unnecessarily) through some of the more difficult to stage plot points. Fortunately, unlike Broadway’s Aladdin, the characters loved on-screen return here in tact. I’m avoiding spoilers as much as possible, but my audience gasped and applauded when reindeer Sven made his appearance. It worked so well, in fact, that it’s hard to take your eyes off him. Olaf didn’t register quite as strongly for me, but the audience loved him. Imagine Timon from The Lion King, and you’ve got the idea how they pulled it off.
What surprised me most, though, was the inventiveness and elaborating staging Disney employed here. Frozen obviously needs to satisfy the high expectations of its audience, and this production is still at its core a corporate-driven film turned corporate-driven musical. Still, you get the overwhelming sense that everyone here tries much harder than they could have. Director Michael Grandage stages difficult moments with grace, showing none of the signs of an initially troubled production. The death of Anna and Elsa’s parents, in particular, gave me chills. The freezing of Anna at the end also packs a much more powerful emotional punch than it did in the film. And Elsa’s self-induced cage of ice in Act 2 is something vaguely new to this production that worked wonders to visualize her mental state. This isn’t just a lazy direct-to-Broadway transformation (see: Aladdin. Or don’t.). This is a cast and creative team trying to make a great family musical that appeals to the masses without insulting them.
Caissie Levy and Patti Murin take up the roles of Elsa and Anna, respectively, two orphaned sisters ice-olated (ha) in the kingdom of Arendelle. The star of the show isn’t Elsa, however. Even though she has three tremendous numbers (“Let It Go” and two new ones), Elsa still feels a little on the chilly side (pun intended). It’s not Levy’s fault. She gives a full-bodied performance with the material at her disposal. She also blows the roof off the theater with “Let It Go,” which any Elsa must do, right? Still, I didn’t quite connect with her as a character. I’m not exactly sure why, and I don’t know if others had this problem or not.
Patti Murin’s Anna emerges as the real star of the piece. Murin gives a charming, funny, emotional, and fully rendered performance. Every scene improved because of her presence in it. It’s kind of an effervescent, star-making performance. If the Tony Awards consider these performances, Murin would be at the top of that list. She’s completely fantastic.
She and co-star John Riddle (Hans of the Southern Isles) turn “Love Is an Open Door” into my favorite number of the show, which shocked the hell out of me. Choreographer Rob Ashford stages it as the goofiest love song you’ve ever seen with appropriately goofy choreography. And it completely works. Riddle gives a good performance as Hans, although his late act dark side revelation is as abrupt as it was in the film. Jelani Alladin also has several nice moments as Kristoff. Finally, huge applause goes to Audrey Bennett who played Young Anna at my performance. She gives a perfect child performance.
I honestly didn’t expect Frozen to so successfully translate to the stage. I’d half expected a theme park stage show delivery that would be guaranteed to sell tickets with a faithful translation. I didn’t expect the team to reach as high as they did. There are a handful of moments that didn’t quite jell for me. One, in particular, started the second act with an entire comic number dedicated to Oaken (of Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post). It starts somewhere in the terrible zone, and then worms its way into your heart with a few jokes that eventually pay off and the fact that the cast works overtime to sell the number. Still, it’s easily the lower-ranking new number of the show.
The performances, the staging, the incredible special effects, and the added songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez kind of make you forget this was ever a film. And, yes, it felt like this was the first time in forever that I’d really seen the full material. It works beautifully on the stage, and with a few tweaks, it should be something great.
And it’s really kind of a special moment for me as really the first time my daughter and I have shared something like this before. Given the subject matter, it was kind of a perfect experience all around. I stole glances at her during the performance, and I wish I could have captured those expressions on film. Equal parts awe, surprise, and complete enrapture.
At the end, my daughter looked at me with eyes wet with tears.
“That. Was. Amazing.”
And I fully agree.
Frozen plays at the Buell Theater in Denver, Colorado, until October 1. Tickets are on sale now for its Broadway run starting in February 2018.