Phil Willmott

Review: FROZEN at The St James Theatre, New York

Frozen - Broadway Over the past 10 years the Disney organisation has become a major player in the stage musicals business. There have been massive, internationally replicated successes like THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN and critically acclaimed and much respected shows, for instance NEWSIES, a magnificent New York centric musical which is yet to transfer to the West End, and PETER AND THE STAR CATCHER which had a respectable Off Broadway and Broadway run. But there have also been some real clunkers like THE LITTLE MERMAID and TARZAN which sunk in the Big Apple and have only had a few revivals since.

FROZEN, the latest offering, has all the potential to become another enormous hit. The musical film on which it is based has taken more money than any animated movie ever and its best loved song Let it Go has become a celebrated anthem belted out by fans everywhere.

But something has gone slightly awry. It's very easy to get a ticket at any performance even though it only opened a few months ago and Broadway insiders were also surprised to discover that a new musical MEAN GIRLS, without the power of Disney marketing behind it, was actually taking more money at the box office last week than the seemingly sure thing.

So why isn't it a HAMILTON size hit? The original creative team and several stars have been fired during the course of getting the show to Broadway and it finally ended up in the hands of British directing and design team Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram. It would be fascinating to know whether they were regarded by Disney executives as a safer pair of hands than their predecessors or more radical. The staging of THE LION KING, with its African puppetry, is radical where as the staging of ALADDIN is very traditional, both have proved themselves to be hits so it’s possible bosses might have wanted to take things in either direction; however the corporation has begun to acknowledge there are more adults going to see Disney shows world-wide than children. It seems likely then that they were hoping the new team would create something that would be just as satisfying for an older audience as it is for a family one.

I saw a matinee performance and, as a result, the majority of the people around me were under 10 years old with their friends and guardians. The sense of expectation in the auditorium before the show started was tangible. Plenty of youngsters had dressed up as their favourite characters from the film. I'm sure they found the whole experience truly memorable but for a discerning Broadway audience you get the general feeling that it’s not quite hitting the spot.

None of this is the fault of the British creative team. It's a problem with the initial source material. The variation on the Snow Queen legend makes for an utterly disarming film but to work as a stage show it has been necessary to insert a lot of new songs and music. The first 15 minutes are an almost non-stop musical trudge through the back story of the central characters and there is very little to laugh at or smile about. If you're interested in the evolution of traditional folk stories, as I am, you'll find if fascinating and deftly done and the kids around me were gripped but the tone is set. The show is going to be fun but not too much fun.

As you probably know it’s the story of two princess Elsa and Anya. Elsa has been cursed with a gift which turns objects around her to Ice. This is increasingly inconvenient as she grows older and when her parents die and she is obliged to take over ruling the kingdom mayhem ensues when it becomes clear that she cannot control her talent and the country is plunged into an everlasting winter. Elsa flees to a mountain hideaway but her beloved sister sets out on a quest to bring her home and help her restore the kingdom to its usual summary high spirits. Along the way she teams up with a talking snowman and a hunky young ice seller with a good heart and a pet reindeer. Happily she escapes the attentions of a handsome but conniving prince on the make and the story has been justly celebrated for making boy-girl romance secondary to female friendships and empowerment. In the film there are also funny trolls which in the stage show are reimagined as rather sinister, disconcertingly sexy, mountain creatures whose powerful magic helps the story along.

All the songs that you love from the film are there although cumbersome costumes often prevent high-spirited dancing. The film’s song writers have also added some powerful new ballades. Unfortunately we get one after an other in Act Two, practically reducing the action to a standstill and straining the patience of all ages.

The other notable addition to the score is an absolutely baffling opening to the second half starring a completely new character, a storekeeper, who isn’t in the film, hasn’t appeared previously in the stage show and who you never see again. When our heroes visit his shop he proceeds to sing a comic song based on crude Nordic stereotypes and culminating in the chorus, in nude suits, beating each other with twigs in time to the music as if they’d come from a sauna. I’m not joking.

I can quite see that the show needed a jolly scene at this point but I do not understand why they didn’t give this number to one of the existing characters. In this production the talking snowman, Olaf, is successfully realised by a very clever young actor who balances a puppet on his feet and uses his hands to operate the mouth. What a shame then that the chance to raise our spirits at the top of the second-half wasn’t given to him.

The production is undoubtably lavish, there’s a lot of Santa’s Grotto type scenery and yet the effects are nothing special. You can see stage magic that’s just as impressive in any large-scale regional pantomime across the UK. I was expecting more from the Hollywood dream factory staging a magical story for New York’s dream factory. Making the walls light up with icicle projections is so easy most of us could probably get Siri to do it in our bedrooms. There is a wonderful moment when Elsa changes in an instant from dowdy clothes to a spectacular ice queen outfit. It’s well done but it’s a low tech Victorian stage trick that’s regularly used everywhere from Las Vegas to those pantomimes I mentioned before.

As this was a matinee I got to see some of the production’s understudies whilst the main cast took a break. As you would expect everyone was top-notch Broadway standard even if the actress playing Elsa was a little too robust to convince as a vulnerable young teenager finding her way in the world. Her singing was great though with Let it Go and Elsa’s new song Monster two highlights of the show.

When I took the elevator to my apartment later that afternoon I was holding a copy of the FROZEN program and a woman asked me if I’d seen it and what it was like. I replied that it was great but not quite as amazing as I’d hoped. She shrugged and said she’d heard that from a few people. And that I suppose is the key to why this latest Disney sure-thing hasn’t quite made the impact on Broadway that its producers must’ve been hoping for. It’s a little bit too serious for its own good a little too often, unless it’s trying a little too hard to be a little bit too silly. It’s not quite magical enough and the effects aren’t quite innovative enough and the result is a rather ponderous beast that doesn’t lift the spirits in the same way that the cartoon does.

It’s certainly a near miss though. When the production inevitably moves to London, where home-town goodwill for the creative team, will propel it to new life, it may yet shape up with a few changes.

Frozen the Musical - London