By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, April 9, 2018
After seeing the new stage version of Disney’s Frozen on Broadway, I posted on Facebook that I had found the show dull, disjointed, and pretty darned dreary. Someone responded, “Probably true. But it will run forever.”
Let’s unpack that statement, shall we? First, how can an opinion be “probably true”? Opinions are not statements of fact, so they are neither true nor false. Oh, they can be misinformed, or poorly supported, or just plain wacky. But they are, by definition, subjective. (Haven’t we gotten into enough trouble in this country when people erroneously set forth their opinions as statements of fact?)
But far more important is the assertion that Frozen will run forever. Again, irrelevant. Mamma Mia! ran seemingly forever, but was pretty darned atrocious. It’s not necessarily the job of a critic to gauge the financial prospects of a work. Critics focus on the extent to which a particular work and its presentation are actually any good. They also gauge the extent to which the work fits into and continues a larger cultural conversation.
By all accounts, Frozen has been breaking box-office records at the St. James Theatre. But it seems as though Disney was so sure that the property would be a moneymaker that the parties involved didn’t really pay attention to whether the stage adaptation was actually working as a stand-alone piece.
Truth be told, I genuinely enjoyed the movie Frozen when it came out in 2013, especially the songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. But the movie seems to have lost quite a bit of its magic in the translation. What soared in the movie theater meanders and plods on stage.
(l. to r.) Patti Murin, Caissie Levy with Jacob Smith in ‘Frozen;’ photo: Deen van Meer.
Let’s start with the songs. Only the ubiquitous “Let It Go” has any real lift in the stage version of Frozen. The rest of the score, both the holdover numbers from the film and the dozen or so new songs, just kind of lie there. The songs alternate between forced expository chorus numbers and manufactured showstoppers, including the “Fixer Upper” number from the film and an unnecessary act two opener callee “Hygge” with dancing spa patrons in nude body suits.
There’s also the obligatory 11 o’clock screlter number for Elsa called “Monster,” which honestly I wouldn’t have remembered if I hadn’t written “obligatory 11 o’clock screlter” in my notebook. In fact, the songs are so bland that I walked out humming the same song I was humming as I walked in. (i.e. “Let It Go”)
An even greater liability is Jennifer Lee’s libretto. Much of the dialogue is clunky, as when one character points out a window and exclaims, “Hey, look, it’s Kristoff and Sven riding back to save you!” At others times, the dialogue is careworn (“Princess Anna, this dress won’t wear itself”) or cloying (“Only an act of true love can heal a frozen heart”).
Even worse, the story features a succession of plot points with ill-defined justification. Much of the plot hinges on the fact that Princess Elsa has magical powers that wind up freezing the entire kingdom. We never learn where she got these powers, nor is it ever made clear why she and her parents choose to keep them a secret, why it’s supposed to be this major source of shame for the family, nor indeed why Elsa and her sister Anna need to be separated for their entire childhoods.
What’s more, the plot to Frozen has no consistent dramatic motor to it. The story seems to meander from event to event, with vague conflicts that ebb and flow. For example, after tension builds at the end of act one with respect to the search party that that tries to track Elsa down, the search party disappears for almost the entirety of act two.
Ms. Lee may have an Academy Award to her name, but she doesn’t seem to know how to structure and pace a stage musical. For instance, she probably doesn’t know that scenes-in-one went out of style 60 years ago. A scene-in-one is a song or event in a show that takes place in front of the curtain to cover the fact that the set is being changed. I counted three scenes-in-one in Frozen, with scenery changes covered by superfluous dance, egregious digital projections, and unnecessary mini-reprises.
(l. to r.) Caissie Levy and Patti Murin (foreground) and the company of ‘Frozen;’ photo: Deen van Meer.
Lost amid the clutter is a terrific cast, including Caissie Levy as Elsa and Patti Murin as Anna, both wonderfully animated and committed to material that’s beneath their considerable talents. In fact, you can practically hear the strain of the entire cast trying to breath some life into the petrified material. You can certainly see a lot of sweat, although that may be due to Christopher Oram’s impractically heavy costumes. Yeah, it’s called Frozen, but pity to poor performers who have to wear these heavy costumes during the summer months.
All things considered, the two hours and twenty minutes that I spent at the venerable St. James watching Frozen felt a good deal longer than the eight hours I spent at the Neil Simon watching of Angels in America. I’d do the latter again in a heartbeat. The former? Not so much.
Frozen at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, for an open-end run. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes. Book by Jennifer Lee; music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez; based on the 2013 Disney film. Directed by Michael Grandage; choreography by Rob Ashford; scenic and costume design by Christopher Oram; lighting design by Natasha Katz; hair design by David Brian Brown; makeup design by Anne Ford-Coates; special effects design by Jeremy Chernick; sound design by Peter Hylenski; video design by Finn Ross; puppet design by Michael Curry; 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, 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.
Cover: The Company in a scene from ‘Frozen;’ photo: Deen van Meer.