Disney's animated blockbuster heads for a high-stakes Broadway run via this Denver tryout, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Grandage and adapted by creatives from the film's Oscar-winning team.
The girl-power message still runs deep in Disney's Broadway-bound version of its 2013 animated blockbuster Frozen. What's notably different are at least 10 new songs, the addition of full-fledged musical numbers, a more subdued color palette, and of course the characters are now played by humans who must tread the line between caricature and reality. The diverse, well-trained cast does all this and more. While not everything works perfectly, the production that opened Wednesday at Denver's Buell Theatre (en route to the St. James in New York in February) is a generally faithful adaptation that appeared to delight the sold-out audience, including several groups of very young school children who attentively "oohed" and squealed in all the right places.
In the pivotal roles of Anna and Elsa, Patti Murin and Caissie Levy (Broadway veterans of Wicked and other shows) play the royal sisters who were once close but are now separated by fear. Finding their way back to one another requires a yellow brick road-style adventure instigated by Anna, whose can-do spirit takes on even greater meaning in the stage production. Her pluck alone stands in for some of film's cherished iconography — as the sled, the horseback ride into the unknown and Elsa's grand staircase are no longer part of the story.
In making the transition to the stage, Disney already had several Frozen blueprints. A well-acted and imaginatively staged theme park version — Frozen Live at The Hyperion — has been playing at Disney California Adventure Park for more than a year. There are Disney on Ice and Disney cruise ship incarnations as well. To clearly separate the Broadway production from those truncated family attractions, the creative team aims, inevitably, for less froth and more artistic seriousness. But sometimes froth — and vibrant colors and brighter lighting — are all just fine, particularly when princesses, fun sidekicks and a fanciful Scandinavian kingdom are involved. A little less gravitas would seem in order as Disney continues to tweak the show in the run-up to New York.
For those who somehow missed the movie (the highest-grossing animated film of all time with a $1.3 billion global haul), our story begins in the idyllic village of Arendelle, where young Anna and Elsa (played at the performance reviewed by terrific young pros Mattea Conforti and Brooklyn Nelson) are the best of friends. The girls share a palace bedroom with majestic canopy beds, one of the more eye-popping scenes created by set and costume designer Christopher Oram. But this tranquil childhood lair cannot protect the sisters from the danger ahead as Elsa's untamable powers are revealed.
In no time she is crowned queen, and we meet Hans (John Riddle), a prince with a secret, and Kristoff (the engaging Jelani Alladin), a friendly ice harvester who doesn't know how dashing he really is. These introductions also deliver the show's first real wow-moment — the entrance of Sven the Reindeer, played ingeniously by dancer Andrew Pirozzi, within a lifelike costume created by puppet-master Michael Curry. Imbuing the creature with heart and humanity, Sven is a marvel of both performance and design.
While Disney meets the daunting challenge of transferring animated work to the stage in that case, it does not fare as well with Olaf the snowman — an inconsequential role greatly elevated by Josh Gad's superb voice work in the movie. On stage Olaf is rendered as a three-foot-high puppet attached to the body of actor Greg Hildreth, who is sort of dressed like a snowman and sings and pulls the strings — yeoman's work with a difficult assignment. Yet the result is mostly a distraction, requiring a huge suspension of disbelief, and real work on the part of the audience as we wonder which set of Olaf's eyes to look into. Were Olaf's head to escape his body (as in the movie), a case could be made for this kind of portrayal, but that does not happen in the stage show. Best to put an actor inside a costume or a true puppeteer in the rafters. Pick one.
But back to the ladies who drive this fable. The indelible voice work of Kristen Bell as Anna and Idina Menzel as Elsa in the film is rightly locked in the minds of most of the kids who have seen (and re-seen) the movie, so comparisons will be inevitable. Murin makes Anna her own with classic nuanced stage singing and lots of spark — a modern-day Annie Oakley with flashes of Olivia Pope.
Levy brings a deft mix of icy imperiousness and girlish yearning to Elsa. Of course it's the less juicy role, but she does have the big Oscar-winning song "Let It Go," which could use less TV-contest-style vocalizing; it arrives now at a slightly different point in the script, positioned as the perfect Act 1 closer. The number is low on special effects but benefits from an apparent Bedazzler run amok as giant sparkling snowflakes shimmer behind Elsa. And don't look away for even a nanosecond, or you'll miss her whiz-bang costume change.
In general, director Michael Grandage appears to be holding the effects in check — just enough in places, lest they overpower the story. With the wolves and snow monster gone, Anna's daring rescue of Kristoff occurs on a rickety ice bridge. At one point the actors slip into harnesses, appearing to presage a possible aerial segment that does not occur. There are, however, bolts that flash, a proscenium that lights up progressively as the action builds, and cool projections that might be more effective on a less textured background. Elsa also creates her own dazzling ice prison, surrounding herself with daggers she conjures from the earth during the new song "Monster."
The movie's married songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have added several new numbers, the best of which is the Act 2 opener, "Hygge." Performed by Kevin Del Aguila as Oaken, the loopy storekeeper, the scene also contains the show's best dance number, a comical variation on an old-school fan dance. Oddly, it's an earlier bit from choreographer Rob Ashford during Hans and Anna's "Love Is An Open Door" that seems unnecessarily suggestive in a show geared for young children. Elsewhere the trolls and the troubling ethnic stereotypes that characterized them in the film have been jettisoned. In their place are "the hidden people" — kindly indigenous folk costumed in animal tails and dreadlocks, another potentially problematic characterization that ought to be reworked.
By the time it all wraps up in classic, uplifting Disney fashion — but without Prince Charming's stamp of approval — the issues that need tending to hardly seem to matter. While the characters are spinning on a two-tiered revolving stage (a stand-in for the outdoor skating scene), the message is clear: Love wins and women can save the day. Charming characters, a built-in audience and hummable tunes make Frozen a no-brainer for Broadway. Can Disney turn it into the next super-smash? The odds look good.
enue: Buell Theatre at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Denver
Cast: Caisse Levy, Patti Murin, Jelani Alladin, Greg Hildreth, John Riddle, Robert Creighton, Kevin Del Aguila, Timothy Hughes, Andrew Pirozzi, Audrey Bennett, Mattea Conforti, Brooklyn Nelson, Ayla Schwartz, Alyssa Fox, Aisha Jackson, Adam Jepson
Director: Michael Grandage
Book: Jennifer Lee
Music & lyrics: Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Video designer: Finn Ross
Puppet designer: Michael Curry
Music supervision and arrangements: Stephen Oremus
Music director: Brian Usifer
Orchestrations: David Metzger
Special effects designer: Jeremey Chernick
Choreographer: Rob Ashford
Presented by: Disney Theatrical Productions
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