NEW YORK – Disney’s latest theater effort is “Frozen" on Broadway, which opened in March at the St. James Theater on West 44th Street. The show is based on Disney’s Oscar-winning animated film from 2013, which brought $1.3 billion to the studio's coffers.
Now, it’s been fashioned into a singing, dancing, theatrical spectacle.
The book is by Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed the movie, and the music is by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who wrote seven brilliant songs for the movie and added 12 ordinary new ones to the stage version.
The stager of “Frozen” is the British director Michael Grandage, and the choreographer is Rob Ashford. Scenic and costume design is by Christopher Oram. Natasha Katz's lighting makes everything in this other-worldly medium glow with a painterly touch.
Broadway's “Frozen” offers plenty of entertainment, but it doesn’t have any of the unique genius that Julie Taymor brought to Disney’s “The Lion King” or the creativity we enjoyed in other Disney ventures like the inventive fun of “Aladdin” or the classic romance of “Beauty and the Beast.”
What it does sport is something a bit different: a serious stirring story of a strong sister relationship, something you might never think Disney's animated division would be attracted to.
The musical takes place in Arendelle, which is located on a Scandinavian fjord. It features the two princesses of Arendelle, Elsa (Caissie Levy), who possesses a mythic quality that can create ice and snow, and Anna Anna (Patti Murin). Elsa keeps her powers under wraps from her younger, more conventional sister.
The real source of this story is Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” which has been edited and rethought by Ms. Lee. Princess Elsa’s powers grow with her age, and one night her innate ability mistakenly almost kills Anna. Her parents had to call in the trolls – creatures from Scandinavian folklore thought to be rare, supernatural beings. Ms. West keeps letting her story slip in and out of a Hans Christian Andersen's original fairy tale concoction. The trolls, who look like “Star Wars” characters, save Anna and somehow magically make her forget that it was Elsa’s power that almost put in the ground.
Elsa becomes a recluse with her castle door shut, not wanting to hurt anyone. A few years later, the princesses’ parents die on a tragic ocean voyage and Elsa and Anna become orphans. Elsa, as the elder sister, becomes Queen of Arendelle and to celebrate her coronation she opens the castle’s gates. Citizens from all over Scandinavia arrive. From the Southern Isles comes a prospective husband for Anna, Hans (John Riddle) who has 12 brothers ahead of him for royal knighthood. Anna thinks Hans would be an ideal husband for her, though Elsa refuses to let Anna marry someone she has just met.
The coronation excitement stirs up Elsa’s darkness. She freezes Arendelle into an eternal winter and flees the castle, traveling many miles away to an obscure north mountain plateau where she creates her own ice palace. There, she feels free and gets to sing the film’s signature song, “Let it Go,” throwing her queen’s tiara away and beginning to revel in her new mythic life.
The second act begins with Anna's setting off with Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), a local peasant ice man, and his companion Sven, a reindeer, who dances and moves with wit and aplomb and is acted by the splendid Andrew Pirozzi.
They also meet a funny snowman puppet, Olaf, designed by Michael Curry and operated by Greg Hildreth. They all go through dangerous winter precipices and finally find Elsa after a series of dramatic, snowy and icy traumas. Eventually, Elsa returns to Arendelle and comes to terms with her dark powers. She gets rid of Arendelle's eternal winter and the gates to the city are opened again. She even creates a skating rink for the local populous. Anna will marry not Hans, but rather the kind Kristoff.
Finally, the mythic-like Elsa and her young sister Anna are united. I guess Elsa's “Let it Go” ethereal life in the ice palace has been abandoned, but who knows? Maybe we will find out in the next installment, “Frozen 2,” but there are many contradictions in this story.
All of the creators of “Frozenl” are first-rate professionals with theater credits and awards galore, but in trying to take a 92-minute animated movie and create it into a 2-hour, 20-minute musical, the story's creativity gets weakened. I always have thought the evolution from screen to stage for “Frozen” was a complicated joust. I felt the same way about Tina Fey's Broadway version of her film “Mean Girls” and, in New Jersey, the Paper Mills Playhouse’s recent musical take on the Paul Newman and Robert Redford 1973 flick “The Sting.”
The whopping $1.3 billion the film “Frozen” brought in seems to have inhibited the artists (Disney fired the first round of creators), but Disney continued to invest in “Frozen, the Musical,” which in the end cost $50 million to open on Broadway.
What is interesting is that from the beginning, there has always been a huge audience for “Frozen” and the stage version. The audience’s imagination was stirred by a new take on a fairy tale. The night I attended, there were families galore with many daughters dressed as Elsa or Anna, and they were all having a grand time.
“Frozen" is not a theatrical milestone, but Disney has originated a different kind of fable for the new century.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.