Review: A Darker ‘Frozen,’ With Glints of Ice and Murk


The first question is easier to answer. It was money that brought Elsa and the gang to Denver for the pre-Broadway tryout that opened on Thursday. (The Broadway production is scheduled to begin previews at the St. James Theater on Feb. 22.) After all, “Frozen” the film, released in 2013, is the highest grossing animated movie ever, having reaped $1.3 billion to date. And earlier Disney stage transfers, especially “The Lion King,” have added billions more to the company’s coffers.

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Jacob Smith, at right, crowns Caissie Levy, as Elsa, in “Frozen.”

Credit
Deen van Meer

But the success of “Frozen” as a film was already a bit odd, a freak of the tween zeitgeist more than a response to coherent storytelling. Remotely based on the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Snow Queen,” a parable about faith and friendship, the movie retained only the central metaphor of a woman who can freeze people’s hearts with her witchcraft. In the Andersen, she ensorcells a little boy she fancies and holds him in icy captivity until his saintlike friend Gerda finds and rescues him.

In the screenplay for “Frozen,” though, Elsa isn’t an evil witch but a tormented blonde whose power tends to leak as if she were suffering from a form of magical incontinence. (She wears gloves to hold it in.) And the endangered youth isn’t a handsome boy but the bumptious, ginger Anna, who endures many adventures and hardships while trying to redeem her sister. Instead of eros we have sisterly love, and instead of Christian faith we have pluck.

The stage musical, directed by Michael Grandage, further revises those qualities, not necessarily on purpose. You don’t notice it so much in Act One, which moves swiftly and hews fairly close to the movie’s plot, though the trolls who know how to undo Elsa’s magic are no longer embodied as talking boulders but as hunky Hidden Folk who sing in Norwegian.

More consequentially, a dozen or so songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have been added to seven they wrote for the movie, making the first act a nearly sung-through music drama. Several of the new ones flesh out subsidiary characters, including Hans, the foreign prince who romances Anna, and Kristoff, the backcountry lunk who helps her on her journey. These are typical second-drawer Disney numbers: momentarily catchy, neat and to the point.

But as the story (by Jennifer Lee, the movie’s co-screenwriter) develops, and especially in Act Two, you become aware of major strains in the adaptation. They begin with the need to recreate onstage the magic carried out so effortlessly on film. Though the metamorphosing dress (by the costume designer Christopher Oram) is delightful, the other transformations, especially whenever Elsa gets into one of her ice manias, seem labored. Ms. Levy squats and swings her arms around Martha Graham-style while some pretty but obvious projections do the rest.

That feeling of heaviness — enhanced by Mr. Oram’s dark and gloomy sets, which reflect not only the northern setting but the psychological and ecological turmoil of the story — also comes from critical choices the adapters have made.

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The ensemble in “Frozen,” which features costumes and sets by Christopher Oram.

Credit
Deen van Meer

Perhaps because it would be unstageable, much of Anna’s journey to Elsa’s mountain lair is gone, as is the snow monster called Marshmallow who threatens her retreat. Instead we get a number called “What Do You Know About Love?” to introduce the romance between Anna and Kristoff. Though deliciously played by Patti Murin, Anna thus becomes a more conventional Disney girl, all signs pointing to marriage.

At the same time, because of the stage musical’s need to deepen character through song, Elsa becomes less conventional. Mostly seen alone, often in self-imposed exile, she has little opportunity to bounce her feelings off other characters. As a result her new numbers, in addition to the big old one, become a string of super-intense monologues, as if she were Hamlet or Sweeney Todd. She is always having dark epiphanies, but her epiphanies are mostly the same: There is something wrong with me.

In the movie her neurotic tendencies, like her facial features, were easily smoothed away. But as played, quite well, by Ms. Levy, an actual human, you cannot help but feel the torture Elsa suffers. That’s a brave enough choice on its own, but this is a Disney musical, and it does not comport very well with the comic numbers, including a bizarre second act opener by the choreographer Rob Ashford that features a naked sauna kick line.

By the middle of that act, with new songs like “Monster” for Elsa and “Colder by the Minute” for the hard-working ensemble, and with the never-very-logical plot rushing toward its conclusion, plenty of the Elsas in the audience had fallen asleep, perhaps in self-defense.

This is no disaster. Mr. Grandage, who staged rivetingly dour productions of “Frost/Nixon” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan” on Broadway, has five months to revise and refine the show. Some of his work will be done for him by the St. James itself, which seats 1,600 instead of the Buell’s 2,800, and will help focus the audience on the less generic, more psychological tale he apparently wants to tell. And already much is right: The supporting cast is charming, the singing spectacular, the simpler effects — including the crystal curtain for Elsa’s palace and the part-puppet, part-human reindeer and snowman — successful.

But, like “Wicked” before it, “Frozen” is going to have to figure how to make the dark character less of a bore and the light character more compelling. (A reprise of “Let It Go,” for Anna, might help with the latter.) For now the dominant element isn’t ice but murk. The authors seem to have taken Elsa’s warning — “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see” — too much to heart.

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