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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 22, 2018

Frozen Music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Book by Jennifer Lee. Based on the Disney film written by Jennifer Lee and directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Directed by Michael Grandage. Choreographed by Rob Ashford. Associate director Adrian Sarple. Associate choreographers Sarah O’Gleby and Charlie Williams. Orchestrations by Dave Metzger. Music coordinators Michael Keller and Michael Aarons. Additional dance arranger David Chase. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Makeup design by Anne Ford-Coates. Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick. Music director Brian Usifer. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Video design by Finn Ross. Puppet design by Michael Curry. Scenic and costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Music supervision and arrangements by Stephen Oremus. Cast: Caissie 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 Jepsen, Alicia Albright, Tracee Beazer, Wendi Bergamini, Ashley Blanchet, James Brown III, Claire Camp, Lauren Nicole Chapman, Spencer Clark, Jeremy Davis, Kali Grinder, Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Zach Hess, Donald Jones Jr., Nina Lafarga, Ross Lekites, Austin Lesch, Synthia Link, Travis Patton, Adam Perry, Jeff Pew, Olivia Phillip, Noah J. Ricketts, Ann Sanders, Jacob Smith, and Nicholas Ward.
Theatre: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Caissie Levy, Patti Murin, and Cast Members
Photo by Deen van Meer

I am quite happy, from time to time, to indulge my inner child with lightweight family fare. All that I ask is that it offer up some good old theatrical magic and give me something for which I will be willing to suspend my disbelief for a couple of hours. So when I entered the St. James Theatre, where the kid-friendly Broadway musical version of Disney's animated megahit film Frozen opens tonight, I was "looking for a fairy tale," to quote one of the new songs that Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have penned for the production.

Unfortunately, Frozen offers up precious little magic. It has also has been stripped of almost every ounce of fairy tale fear, worry, suspense, and catharsis, even as it tells a story that should be filled with all of these. What may have worked in animation just flattens out on the stage.

As the townspeople sing early on, "once there was a family with secrets to keep." A young girl, Elsa (I saw Ayla Schwartz, who rotates in the role with Brooklyn Nelson), is cursed with a destructive magic power. She accidently injures her sister Anna who nearly dies. The two of them are orphaned while still young. They grow up isolated and apart, confined to a dark and dreary old castle, hardly seeing each other or anyone else except for the servants. These are the opening scenes, essential to establishing the show's premise. Yet they are tossed off as quickly as I have listed them, and as unemotionally matter-of-fact as possible.

Maybe the Nordic locale induces stoicism, but except for the exuberant and mischievous young Anna (I saw a delightful Mattea Conforti in the role she alternates with Audrey Bennett), the characters accept every blow with equanimity. The closest we come to disquietude comes much later, when Elsa, now the queen and played with determined restraint as a grownup by Caissie Levy, sings about the possibility of sacrificing herself to save her people after she has unintentionally unleashed a permanent winter on them.

Her song "Monster," which has at least the potential for a display of intense feeling and soaring singing, has Elsa consider for a brief moment, "If I die, will they be free?" But spare us the agony of self-reflection; the words are barely out of her mouth when she decides, "No. I have to stay alive to fix what I have done." Throughout the show, her insistent mantra has been "Conceal it. Don't feel it"; truly, that could be the motto for the entire production under Michael Grandage's constraining direction.

Jelani Alladin and Andrew Pirozzi
Photo by Deen van Meer

Of course it's good to see a show that features two courageous women, in this case sisters whose strongest bond is the unbreakable one they have with each other. The grown Anna (Patti Murin, the only one who manages to duck the show's overall stultifying tone) keeps the spark alive as she bravely faces the ice-covered landscape to find the brooding runaway Elsa. The men here are either helpful sidekicks-with-potential, like Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), who accompanies Anna on her quest; or they are worthless and expendable, like the superficially charming and marginally threatening Hans (John Riddle); or they are sleazebags, like the troublemaking Duke of Weselton (Robert Creighton). Olaf (a puppet handled and voiced by Greg Hildreth) and Kristoff's pal, the reindeer Sven (Andrew Pirozzi), are endearingly cute, which seems to be their entire purpose (other than to sell merchandise bearing their likeness).

If Act I zips through the CliffsNotes version of a plot that is more or less inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's much darker "The Snow Queen," Act II takes its sweet old time through tangents that do nothing to move the story forward, or even sideways for that matter. The longest of these comes right after intermission. We find ourselves at a trading post run by a character called Oaken (Kevin Del Aguila). Anna and Kristoff stop there for supplies before continuing their search for Elsa, who is holed up in an ice palace she has created for herself. We are waylaid for some time with a song-and-dance routine called "Hygge," choreographed by Rob Ashford and performed by dancers who appear fresh from the sauna, dressed in nude body suits adorned with strategically-placed branches.

What is "hygge" you might ask? Basically, things are hygge if they are good ("Hygge means comfortable; Hygge means cozy/Hygge means sitting by the fire with your cheeks all rosy"). Likewise, things are not hygge if they are bad ("Finding a spider in your shoe. Not hygge/Having an annoying thing to do. Not hygge"). While the number itself has an undeniably oddball charm, its relevance to the plot is all but non-existent. (I will bite my tongue here and not mention what I found to be not hygge about the whole thing.) And as much as the gentle indigenous "Hidden Folk" (substituting for the trolls from the movie) are handy to have around in case you have been magically zapped with ice to the head, their gently teasing song about Kristoff, "Fixer Upper," continues the time-killing pattern until we finally get back into the story and wend our way to the long awaited sisterly reconciliation and thaw.

In the end, instead of the fairy tale I was looking for, what I got was the wispy outline of one, thin and colorless and unimaginative. It's as if the creative and producing team had decided the likely audience could not handle any complexity or display of emotional turmoil on the part of the characters. Or perhaps they were unwilling to veer very far from the billion-dollar-earning film, which was written by Jennifer Lee, who also wrote the book for this stage version.

I have little doubt that Frozen will find, for a long time, theatergoers willing to swim in the sea of dynamic pricing and indulge in $45 stuffed Olaf toys and other branded tchotchkes. In exchange, they will obtain bragging rights for having seen living embodiments of sisters Anna and Elsa, the friendly snowman, and the beloved reindeer Sven, who received enthusiastic entrance applause at the performance I attended. But there is a vapid, washed-out feel to the entire enterprise, from the set design that relies rather heavily on painted backdrops and projections (lots of aurora borealis images), to the beige costumes (except for Elsa's sequined ice-blue gown), to the bland score. Not even "Let It Go," the breakout hit song from the movie, manages to fly in this stilted production. I honestly am puzzled by the quality of Frozen. Surely the folks at Disney, unbeatable masters of family movies, cartoons, TV shows, and Broadway hits like The Lion King and Aladdin could do better than this.


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