Theater Review: FROZEN (National Tour)

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by Marc Wheeler on December 8, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


Direct from Broadway, Disney’s Frozen officially kicks off its national tour at the Hollywood Pantages after a tryout in Schenectady, NY, and it’s the hygge snowblast we need. Based on the 2013 Academy Award-winning animation (currently the 15th highest-grossing film of all time), this stage musical adaptation — directed with proficient flair by Michael Grandage — is a cozy winter treat for children and adults alike.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Frozen is the story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa, living in the Norwegian town of Arendelle in the 1840s. When Elsa’s magical powers of turning her external world into a winter wonderland accidentally harms her younger sister, the girls’ parents — the king and queen — call out for help from the Hidden Folk, a tribe of tailed forest-dwellers with ties to the supernatural. Anna’s memories of her sister’s powers are erased and Elsa is forced to “conceal it, don’t feel it, don’t let it show.” When Elsa later takes the crown as queen, her icy powers once again slip. As she flees her kingdom into self-isolation she mistakenly unleashes an eternal winter. In storybook fashion, only an act of true love can sort the whole thing out.

Reuniting for this film-to-stage adaptation are Jennifer Lee, the movie’s writer and co-director, as well as songwriting partners (and real-life spouses) Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Lee has written a fresh new book that both honors and builds on her original story. Meanwhile, the music-and-lyrics duo have transported eight of the film’s songs (including “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?,” “For the First Time in Forever,” and “Love Is an Open Door”) and penned 13 new ones. While many of the additional numbers don’t live up to the originals (such as Elsa’s new ballad “Monster,” which internalizes the monster she externalizes in the film), they fortunately don’t distract from the story. A couple new songs actually improve the work. “Dangerous to Dream” is a beautiful inner dialogue of what Elsa wishes she could explain to her sister. And “Hygge” (reminiscent of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” and Lopez’s own “Hasa Diga Eebowai” from The Book of Mormon) is a delightful ditty about the Scandinavian term for comfy living.

Rob Ashford’s lively choreography moves the show along at a spirited pace, occasionally flash-forwarding into modern stylings to wink at the audience before retreating to more traditional movement. Christopher Oram’s meticulous sets, lit beautifully by Natasha Katz, transform the film’s brightly-lit castle into candlelit quarters more realistic for the era. Such moodiness makes explosions into color in Oram’s scenic and costume designs even more effective. All of this is aided with the magic of Finn Ross’s video design, Jeremy Chernick’s special effects, and Peter Hylenski’s sound design.

To portray the cheerful, naive sidekick Olaf, puppet designer Michael Curry utilizes a featured performer (the delightful F. Michael Haynie) to puppeteer the distinctly-recognizable miniature snowman. Neither actor nor puppet pulls focus; both complement each other well. On the other hand, Sven, ice-chopping Kristoff’s reindeer pal, is manipulated by a hidden actor of which strong physical demands are required (Collin Baja on opening night, Feb. 6, alternates with Evan Strand). The design of the staged reindeer strays from the animation; though stylized, it’s much more realistic-looking. (I had to remind myself its eyes weren’t real.)

Frozen utilizes “rainbow casting.” While a few of the leads are white, other roles are race-blind, allowing the essence of the characters to shine through any prism through which they’re played. While such a conceit might be trickier in other works (or mediums, such as film and television), it’s handled smoothly here, broadening the show’s appeal.

As a young Anna, Stella R. Cobb (alternating with Arwen Mozon-Sanders) is sensationally rambunctious. Like a kid on Christmas morning she eagerly begs her sister, “Do you want to build a snowman?” The naturalness in which she plays the role is refreshing — a kid being a kid, with vocal chops to boot. As a young Elsa, Alyssa Kim (alternating with Jaiden Klein) is much more reserved, showing that if either sister had to go through life hiding their feelings to prevent blizzardous disaster, it’s her. Caroline Innerbichler as the adult Anna makes for an “adorkably” awkward princess. In “Love Is an Open Door,” her sheltered naiveté is on full-display when she falls in love-at-first-sight with Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (Austin Colby), a handsome smooth operator.

The iceman cometh in the form of Mason Reeves as Kristoff, Princess Anna’s partner-in-crime. In the role, Reeves provides a boyish likability rather than the burly “fixer upper” featured in the film. Michael Milkanin delivers post-intermission comic relief as Oaken, the (trimmed down) outpost owner — his “Hygge” number proving an instant crowdpleaser.

Even with her stoic temperament, there’s only so long Elsa can conceal her feelings. As the ice queen, Caroline Bowman knows exactly when to hold back and when to unleash. It’s as if you can literally hear the producers telling us, “wait for it… wait for it…” With Bowman’s vocal prowess and an entire design team working in concert, the Oscar-winning show-stopper “Let It Go” ends Act I with spine-chilling magic.

With so many movies-turned-musicals on Broadway these days, it’s reasonable to be skeptical of yet another obvious cash grab. Is this one? Of course. But when it comes to sheer entertainment and spectacle, it delivers, even with the high bar set for it. Not only is the show feel-good, when “sisters” Bowman and Innerbichler unite for their curtain-call bows, it’s incredibly inspiring. As referenced in song at the top of the show, sometimes the most powerful magic comes from “a little bit of you… a little bit of me.” That’s hygge, indeed.

photos by Deen van Meer

national tour
reviewed at Hollywood Pantages — closes at Pantages on Feb. 2, 2020
tour continues into 2021; for dates and cities, visit Frozen

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