Disney is no stranger to the Broadway stage. Its stories have transported audiences to unlikely places, from the chimneys of London in Mary Poppins to under the sea in The Little Mermaid. Its most successful theater run, The Lion King, went on to win six Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, and has spent two decades on the Great White Way.
Denver is currently hosting Disney’s newest stage venture, Frozen, for out-of-town previews, allowing for necessary tweaks before the musical opens on Broadway in spring 2018. The stage production brings to life the 2013 Disney animated film of the same name that took home two Academy Awards, including Best Original Song.
Inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale “The Snow Queen,” Frozen follows sisters Anna and Elsa, the latter of whom possesses the magic to manipulate ice at her whim. After hurting Anna with her powers, Elsa isolates herself from the world, creating a rift between the sisters. When their parents meet an untimely fate, Elsa inherits the throne of her village. As she’s never learned to master her power, Elsa eventually loses control in front of the royal court. She’s branded a monster and flees to the mountains, but her suppressed power sends the village into a state of perpetual winter. Anna, with a cadre of whimsical companions, sets out on a journey to bring Elsa back and save their village.
The stage production of Frozen is a fun jaunt that will please audiences. The show has moments of ingenuity that illustrate why its a good fit for the stage. But overall, the production feels more like a sugar high than a substantive meal.
On the positive side, the show boasts a strong cast of major and minor characters. Many of the show’s supporting cast stand out, even with limited time on stage. These include Greg Hildreth, who plays Anna’s lovable snowman-sidekick, Olaf, and John Riddle, who plays prince “charming,” Hans.
The highlights come from leading actresses Patti Murin (Anna) and Caissie Levy (Elsa). Murin infuses the younger sister with spunk. Levy gives Elsa an icy exterior but a warm heart and steals the show with her powerful ballad, “Monster.”
Out of the lead roles, Anna’s love interest, Kristoff, needs more development. While Jelani Alladin plays him well, the character lacks personality, and the love story between Kristoff and Anna feels forced. A punchier script or memorable song would help the character land better.
The stage show doubles the number of songs found on the movie version’s soundtrack. There are a few standouts, such as the Act Two opener “Hygge,” that add some flavor and fun. “Hans of the Southern Isles” gives the character some backstory and also provides more time for Riddle to shine. But by far, the best songs in the show are from the original soundtrack. Many of the new songs are forgettable and don’t add any nuance to the show.
The production occasionally produces some wow moments, like its interpretation of Anna’s other sidekick, a reindeer named Sven, and a snowstorm created from dancing chorus members. The staging for some songs is great, including the playful rendition of “In Summer,” where cartoonish elements come together for Olaf’s dream of basking in the sun. But the show is dragged down by its inconsistent creativity.
Elsa’s magical ability to shoot snow from her hands and create ice sculptures with ease was perhaps the most anticipated part of the show. Frozen’s creators chose a few different ways to do this. Some moments are effective and creative, but other instances depend too heavily on lackluster projections. The blend of different effects creates choppiness.
This hinders the show’s biggest moment, Elsa’s earworm of a ballad, “Let it Go.” While Levy delivers a stunning performance of the song, the effects fall flat. It is a moment to pull out all the stops and dazzle the audience, but instead the production settles for a few simple tricks and the use of projection.
A show doesn’t need bells and whistles to be good, but Frozen presents an opportunity for innovation and the potential to bring magic to life. When the creators rest on lazy methods like projections, it serves as a step backward for theater. The audience may as well go and watch the movie.
As it is now, the production is guaranteed to make a successful run on Broadway for its name alone. But if the show’s creators can breathe more life into the production, they can create an enchanting musical that just happens to be based on a popular film.
Frozen holds more responsibility than other new musicals. As a known commodity, it already has a built-in audience. Most importantly, a majority of that audience will be children. With every new stage musical, Disney has the opportunity to create a new generation of theater lovers.
So, come on, Disney. Do it for the kids.
On the Bill: Frozen: The Broadway-Bound Musical. Buell Theatre, Denver Center for Performing Arts, Speer Boulevard and Arapahoe Street. Through Oct. 1.