Disney Theatrical Productions is having an identity crisis. It can’t decide to whom it should tailor this show. Lion King neither addressed nor had that issue, but Frozen surely does. The film gave us two strong, but fallible young women, sibling devotion, romantic love for the right reasons, a hero with integrity (Kristoff) an uber-sentient animal (Sven, the Reindeer) and a sweet, smart, dopey sidekick (Olaf, the snowman). In a nod to contemporary mores, the Prince turns out to be a heel. All of this is depicted in the live show.
We ALSO now have two production numbers featuring the inhabitants of a sauna at the trading post, men and women in strategic towels, each swatting another with a leafy branch. While this is initially funny, it’s also extremely puzzling and adult. Try explaining the humor to your ten year-old.
The same, now apparently naked revelers (in flesh bodysuits), form a teasing chorus line with only branches covering private parts. Behind them, yet another Radio City/Art Deco light configuration appears. What?! If that isn’t enough flesh for you, squat trolls are now scruffy, Norse-god-like creatures with great abs and arms. Oh, and their eyes glow in the dark. Whose attention is this production trying to hold?
Patti Murin and John Riddle
The story: Princess Elsa (Alya Schwartz as a child, Cassie Levy grownup) and Princess Anna (Mattea Conforti – thoroughly appealing and sings well – as a child and Patti Muran grownup) reside in the kingdom of Arendelle with parents King Agnarr (James Brown III) and Queen Iduna (a graceful, maternal Ann Sanders). Elsa has been born with the power to freeze things/bring on winter when her unchecked emotions get out. One evening at play, she inadvertently harms Anna. The king and queen call on mountain folk Pabbie (Timothy Hughes- a hunk) and Bulda (Olivia Philip) to help the child. They do.
Hoping she’ll lean to control the magic in time, her parents separate the children, fire much of the staff and close the gates. Anna is not told why and pines for her playmate. The parents are killed on a trip. (Deftly dramatized.) Elsa is crowned when she comes of age. Anna wants things back the way they were, but her sister is afraid of harming her.
Unaccustomed to being among people, Anna falls hard for the first attractive man she meets, Prince Hans (a winning John Riddle). When they ask Elsa to bless the union, she denies it, inadvertently releasing her “gift.” The people call their queen a monster. She flees into the mountains, unwittingly leaving her village in deep winter during actual midsummer, and, resigned to exile, builds an ice fortress.
Jelani Alladin and Andrew Pirozzi
Anna follows (without time to put on appropriate clothes). She encounters Kristoff (Jelani Alladin) whose ice business is now redundant, and his best friend Sven, the Reindeer (Andrew Pirozzi). “ The combative “ What Do You Know About Love?” is a staging highlight. Also on the rescue scene is the snowman Olaf, a creature the girls built as children. After Elsa, the snowman is brought to life by actor/puppeteer Greg Hildreth who’s completely delightful. The motley trio descend on a local trading post for supplies and encounter the jolly Oaken (Kevin Del Aguila – wonderful, corny accent – a bright spot). Insert sauna scenes.
At Elsa’s new home, Anna tries to reason with her sister, but again gets injured. Kristoff takes her to the mountain folk who try to marry them off. Only a gesture of true love can unfreeze the girl’s heart. Quick, get her to Hans! Elsa allows herself to get captured. Anna rejoins her prince. Turns out he intends to let her die, blame and execute Elsa for killing her, and take over the kingdom. Kristoff and Olaf save the day. Anna finds her hero. Elsa learns love conquers winter i.e. everything.
Visuals have next to no sparkle or magic. The least we expect from Disney is a great looking show with clever realization of the impossible. Where are the Imagineers when one needs them? Mary Poppins’ sets and props were inspired, not to mention her floating up over heads. Aladdin is terrific fun.
If he hadn’t manifest Sven and Olaf so perfectly, I would conjecture that Christopher Oram (Scenic and Costume Design) has been working on too many straight dramas to understand the childlike or fantastical. Perhaps he’s just color blind. Here we have a dark, barely adorned castle that may be period accurate but has no charm. There isn’t a single toy in the princesses’ room. Anna’s big-wheel bike is a lone touch. Roughly executed mountains look like clip art instead of children’s book illustrations. The interior of the trading post is great looking.
Projection snow doesn’t come close to looking even stage real (Finn Ross- Video). Elsa’s powers are indicated by lighting that wants to appear like ice cracks and just look cheap (Natasha Katz- Lighting Design). Lasers could’ve been used for power bolts. The Aurora Borealis and mountain fortress are both underwhelming. When Elsa points and icicles defensively rise, they’re so perfectly shaped, few, and far between, soldiers could easily walk around what’s meant to keep them away. Only the bridge and a crystal curtain evoke the glistening refuge.
It would have been technically easy to make the royal sceptre and orb turn white to Elsa’s touch. New York is filled with illusion experts. Why is Kristoff’s pretty sleigh now a plain wood cart? When Spring is finally recalled, there’s not a touch of green onstage. Where are the blooming flowers and bushes, birds in the air?
Citizenry is dressed in dark, similarly hued apparel, even for the celebratory coronation. Princess Anna’s gown is unflattering. There’s almost nothing to catch or enchant the eye. The sisters wear awful wigs. I refuse to believe cartoon hairstyles can’t be recreated in a naturally enhancing way. Elsa’s second act pants outfit – pants?!- is sheer Las Vegas. Soldiers are better dressed as is Tyrolian Oake, who mans the Trading Post.
There are a dozen new songs most of which seem wedged in (Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez). Original numbers hold up well. “Let It Go,” of course, brings the house down. Book writer Jennifer Lee seems to trade an opportunity to let us see Kristoff and Anna get to know one another in favor of sauna shenanigans. One never feels the threat of would-be assassins. We neither see nor hear about Elsa in prison. While dialogue is good, structure has issues.
Patti Murin’s Anna is winsomely Betty Huttonish with comedy, but never sells pain, or love. Caissie Levy applies acting skills to Elsa, showing us more than a drawing brought to life. She has majestic bearing, sings well and with feeling.
Director Michael Grandage overuses aimless running around and underutilizes the terrific Sven, who often just seems in the way. Olaf is consistently splendid. We never feel moved by either drama or enlightenment when it dawns. Children to whom the story is familiar will likely be less judgmental than adults, but most Disney musicals have entertained all ages without being self conscious about demographics.
Photos: Deen van Meer
Opening: Cassie Levy , Background- Patti Murin
Disney Theatrical Productions presents
Music and Lyrics- Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Book- Jennifer Lee
Directed by Michael Grandage
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street