Of course, Disney stories require a certain suspension of disbelief. That is accepted. But equally, the best fairytales don’t insult children’s love for stories with humongous gaps in the fabric of those stories.
That was this critic’s first problem with the musical version of the smash hit, billions-generating 2013 movie Frozen, whose entire plot revolves around a childhood incident involving a bit of stray magic by one sister hurting another sister by accident, and then everyone rushing to cover it up and never speak of it again.
This reviewer could not get past how dumb-seeming this first key plot point was, and how it wrenches the musical, which received its world premiere in Denver in September last year, from its moorings right at the start.
The stray magic—thanks to the intervention of some passing "hidden folk," replacing the trolls of the original—does not result in lasting, serious injury. The sisters, Elsa (younger: Ayla Schwartz; older: Caissie Levy) and Anna (younger: Mattea Conforti; older: Patti Murin), love each other very much. Their ill-fated parents, Queen Iduna (Ann Sanders) and King Agnarr (James Brown III) love their children very much.
If they are fearful over one sister’s magical powers, and the harm those powers could do—a reasonable enough concern, and Elsa shares it and wants to protect Anna too—then the least practical and logical possible solution seems to be to lock up the sisters in different parts of the family’s royal palace, and keep them sequestered prisoners for years into their adulthood. That's wicked-queeny, not good-parenty.
The girls were sentient and mature enough when the incident happened, and yet we are supposed to believe that the simplest of conversations—“I’m sorry about hurting you with my magic when I was younger, it kind of freaked me out at the time”—didn’t occur at some point, even as teenagers and then as adults?
Instead, both parents, who are good, kind and loving, persecute their good and kind children differently—making Elsa ashamed of her powers, and Anna horribly isolated—and poison their relationship for good measure.
If you accept that the parents and the sisters never feel able to talk about the accident, then the rest of the musical can happily roll on. Elsa’s early lesson: really ugly gloves will stop magic from issuing forth from your body. Remove the ugly gloves, and everybody should take cover inside the nearest suit of armor. Her guilt and panic are the musical's motor.
At the heart of Frozen are the frozen powers of Queen Elsa that express themselves in freezing everything over. She's literally cold. That’s it: just because she didn't really hurt her sister in an accident from years ago.
The story is kind of frozen too, because her keeping those powers secret is the main story. It’s a miserable story really, and so a Broadway audience can be massively thankful to Patti Murin who pretty much saves the stage show of Frozen by playing a charmingly off-kilter and ill-at-ease Princess Anna, who, like the similarly red-haired “Fergie” (Sarah Ferguson, who married Prince Andrew) galumphs around, trying to rouse her sister’s feelings, and find mission and purpose for herself.
Murin is excellent; a square peg trying to find a fit in a sequence of round holes, whether that be romance, family position, or her sibling from her self-destructive self. Elsa's story remains extremely dark, daringly so. But the rest of the show is oddly out of balance because of it.
This reinterpretation of The Snow Queen—whose book is by Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed the movie, and whose music and lyrics are by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who wrote the music and lyrics for the screen—has been tagged a feminist one.
In Elsa, Frozen certainly has a commanding queen who is not searching for a man and who instead is discovering and questioning her powers, and how best to express them and herself. (Does this come across as an LGBT coming out story in the stage show, as so widely hyped when the movie came out? Nope, even if there are rumors that Elsa may get a girlfriend in Frozen 2.)
Elsa feels like an adjunct in the stage show, albeit a powerful one. It's not as if her powers seem special in a good way. Her powers, in the main, express themselves as malfunctions. What she must own seems vexed at best. It is not explained to her or to us. Her power is mediated, on two key occasions, by the "hidden folk," who chant mysterious invocations.
Elsa, as her parents wanted (why?), is ashamed of her powers, and what they may do—and the story gets stuck with her not getting past it, or being given a story in which she can.
All this directionless mystery and gloom means that it is Elsa's sister—a spare rather than an heir, as Anna herself puts it—who is the central character in the Broadway story, who tries to find a pathway to her sister and to address her neuroses.
Anna thinks she has found a prince, Hans (the beautifully voiced John Riddle). But princely looks can be deceptive. The love story in Frozen remains between the sisters, the challenges of love are their challenges to love each other despite what has happened in the past.
Such an ambitiously conceived tale of sibling estrangement and reuniting deserves a better story. The stakes never seem less than high—life and death, the future of the country, betrayal and treason—but the stakes have gotten so high for the bizarrest, stupidest reasons.
Elsa isn’t the star of this Frozen, Anna is. It is Anna’s bravery, humor, and wit that resonate. Elsa is so imperious and so alone she comes across more as an object of pity than admiration.
The relationship of sisters may be the intended dramatic knot, but it’s the relationship of Anna and Kristoff (Jelani Alladin) who loves his reindeer Sven (Andrew Pirozzi, unseen under shaggy fur, presumably with quads of steel) that is the warmest on stage.
Olaf is present, but the animated snowman who made children coo is now a puppet snowman, still with the best zingers and operated by Greg Hildreth standing right behind him and his carrot nose.
There are lots of new songs in the show to flesh the show out to nearly two hours, but there’s only one song anyone is waiting for, and it comes at the end of act one, sung by Elsa, by now on the run and suspected of being a sorcerer.
Levy sings “Let It Go” beautifully and clearly, with a restrained rather than belting passion and a dash of applause-winning sartorial surprise; director Michael Grandage and designer Christopher Oram do their darndest to make the moment as magical as any Frozen fan would want it to be.
Despite its welcomingly melodramatic framing, the song somehow feels smaller than it should, and while it is a song of liberation and owning one’s power, and you’re all “Go Elsa!” by the end of it, act two rolls around and she’s still stuck in the same Elsa-being-pursued, still-not-telling-Anna-the-truth, still-scared-of-her-magic cycle that she has been in all the way through act one.
She hasn’t let it go at all. She's kept it all in.
The new songs range from the forgettable to the plain bizarre, such as “Hygge,” which is essentially an advertisement for the Scandinavian lifestyle trend of the same name, resulting in a number of the chorus in all-white body-stockings thrusting leaves over their nether regions in an effort to conjure a big, belting, high-kicking Broadway number.
The special effects, to convey Elsa’s freezing powers over the kingdom, are certainly dramatic, but their execution also seems familiar from TV, movies, and cartoons. Crucially, the theater itself never feels magical, and the stage seems small.
Frozen feels well-behaved and self-contained. Everything – the singing and dancing – is done well, but without daring. There is one beautiful set – Elsa’s ice palace, full of glitter and shine and twinkling shapes – which is the best advertisement for constant winter ever visualized.
How would the children behave, I wondered as I took my seat. If I had been worried about a lot of noise I needn’t have been. The young girl next to me cuddled noiselessly into her dad's arms, and there were only sundry other cries, laughs, and squealed interjections. Although that was good for me, a really connecting production of Frozen should have a lot more of its target audience interacting with it. They sat, many in their Elsa and Anna garb, mostly quietly.
At the end we are none the wiser as to what powers Elsa retains, and how she will use them; they’re still in her fingers but now—with the love she feels for Anna fully expressed, presumably—under good control. It means she can create spring and summer, which seem so much more boring and cloying than her dramatic, queeny-hissyfit winter.
That’s the strangest thing about watching the stage show of Frozen. Its central song beseeches you to “let it go,” to express yourself, to be yourself. But at its curtain both sisters have learned to temper themselves and calm down. It’s a musical of moderation rather than fearless self-expression. It proposes, gently, that the powers special inside you can be ennobling, rather than destructive of others and of the self if they are properly marshaled and dispensed.
There at the end are two women leading the company into their bows, playing two characters not needing men to complete them, who are confident in themselves and loving of each other. Elsa and Anna are leaders and examples. That exhibition of female power—still, sadly, a radical concept in Hollywood and on Broadway—is to be welcomed, and particularly for young girls and boys to see, but this musical feels oddly frozen in its delivery of it.
Frozen: The Broadway Musical is at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York City. Book here.