This review is based on the world premiere opening night performance, 8/17/17. There are MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. I go into detail about many aspects of the show. I also, as usual, share my opinions and theories. Also, as usual, I call it as I see it. If you can’t handle honest opinions, this isn’t the site for you.
There’s a lot to love about the live version of Frozen, most especially the cast. But my conclusion is that they needed Julie Taymor, the uber talented director who brought The Lion King to the stage, to midwife this show, as well. This show needed to be a spectacle show that focussed on the two sisters’ relationship and journeys to full adulthood, and on Elsa’s ice creations, much as The Lion King manages to both focus on Simba’s relationships and coming of age story, and the pageantry of the costumes and props, without the spectacle overwhelming the characters or story.
In the version I saw last night, Elsa, herself, is pushed to the side in her own story, under the guise of getting to know her and the other characters better. This means that we get to see more of her relationship with her father, the king, which I loved, except that most of the relationship was him telling her to repress her magic and live in fear of her natural talents and abilities. He was gentle and loving with her, but he was afraid of her power and unwittingly forced her into isolation, fear, and repression.
Elsa is a dutiful daughter, so, as in the movie, she obeys him throughout her childhood and adolescence. This alone is not terrible, but it’s hard to imagine a father locking his son, the prince, alone in his room for the entirety of his childhood instead of making provisions for him to be trained to rule before he reached adulthood and was coronated.
Anytime a prince is held back from fully living life, he gets himself out of the house to head off on his coming of age quest/adventure (hero’s/heroine’s journey), which is what Frozen is for Elsa. She also gets out of the house as soon as she’s legally in charge of herself. She goes into the mountains alone and spends time being free, learning to control her powers, finding who she is and what she values as herself, outside of her status as a royal. This is the exact journey that Simba takes when he runs away from Scar after his father’s death. He spends time learning to be himself as he Hakuna Matata’s his way through the forest. It’s the equivalent of Elsa Letting It Go.
But we can’t stay children forever, as Nala and Anna remind Simba and Elsa when they find them in the forest and the ice castle. Simba must fight his battle with Scar and the hyenas to reclaim his father’s throne and prove that he is ready to be a leader and fully an adult. In the movie, Elsa must overcome Hans and the Duke of Weselton, and thaw the ice that threatens Arendelle’s survival in order to prove that she is a worthy queen and fully an adult. Both Simba and Elsa fight and win with the help of their loyal friends and family, and take their places as the rightful rulers of their realms, adults who are ready to become caretakers instead of children who must be taken care of.
BUT- In the new stage version, Elsa did not fight. She was afraid. Afraid of being a monster or being seen as a monster by others. Afraid that she won’t be liked. Afraid she’ll hurt someone, even the people who are her enemies. Afraid she’ll fail.
Elsa’s power is barely shown throughout the show, since the producers and director chose to put very little emphasis on those effects. Marshmallow, symbol of Elsa’s childish anger at her parents and the world, is missing from the stage show. I’m not sure what was supposed to have happened in his place. It seemed like Elsa was maybe supposed to make a gust of wind blow them down the hill, but they basically just darkened the stage for a second and the actors pantomimed tumbling around.
The “ice castle” is made of a little glow added to cliff walls that are already there, and a shimmery fringe curtain. There might be some other minor stage dressing. The “castle” forms while Elsa stands at the front of the stage, with curtains hiding the rest of the set. The curtain rises to reveal the “castle”. We don’t get to see Elsa build the “castle”. The process is literally physically separated from her, and the end result is underwhelming. You’d have no idea what was supposed to have happened if you didn’t know the movie. (This is a frequent issue during the show.) And no idea that she was supposed to have built an entire building by herself in minutes.
So Elsa sings Let It Go, but continues to repress her anger after she hurts Anna. Without her anger, Elsa can’t fight back when Hans brings his men to capture her. She surrenders instead, afraid that she’ll hurt one of the soldiers that’s trying to hurt her. 🤷🏻♀️ Her “castle” doesn’t have a chandelier, so the capture sequence had to be changed somehow. There are other options that don’t involve surrender, though. And Phantom has had a falling chandelier for decades now. It’s a fantastic dramatic moment in Phantom. That could have been a great moment in Frozen, too.
After that, Elsa’s a prisoner. We know that her story is building toward the moment when Anna jumps in front of Elsa and saves her through an act of true love, but not much character growth is happening. She escapes from her cell, but it’s accidental, unlike the movie. She has no agency. She’s a fearful child, no closer to true adulthood, unlike Simba at this point in his story. (We were comparing Frozen to The Lion King, remember?)
Once Anna saves Elsa, the two hug, share a moment, then Anna runs over to Kristoff for a very long kiss. The focus of the story shifts very quickly to their romance.
And that’s essentially the end, but for the curtain calls and various reprises. There is no denouement where Elsa shows us that she’s mastered her powers and is taking care of a thriving Arendelle, with Olaf, symbolic snowman, healthy and happy even in summer. All of that is gone.
Elsa does not win her battle. She doesn’t really fight it. She’s a bystander in her own story, while several male characters guide Anna toward saving them both. Elsa is left hanging, a childwoman who is still afraid and unsure, never having allowed herself to take the risks necessary to become a confident adult.
Unlike Anna, she doesn’t have a male partner to continue guiding her, so the show needs to end quickly. They can’t show her using her powers as she rules her kingdom, because they never gave her a chance to master them. She’s still alone because she didn’t get to fight side by side with anyone the way Anna and Simba do. Her only victory is being able to open up her heart to her sister again, but Anna runs straight to her new boyfriend after a brief conversation with Elsa. Elsa is left standing alone, emotionally speaking. She’s still the Ice Queen.
So what kind of a victory have they left Elsa with, as compared to the movie, where, at the end, she’s surrounded by people she’s interacting with in a meaningful way and using her powers for the good of her people? But, hey, at least no one feels threatened by her any more. She’s been put in her place. Is that the message we are trying to send to our little girls?
Meanwhile, Anna’s spunkiness and humor are played up, while her moments of decisiveness and intelligence are given over to the male characters standing in her vicinity. She still has good intuition and is fiercely loyal to Elsa, but she’s easily distracted, and not even smart enough to figure out that she needs to wear a coat in the middle of winter. Kristoff now tells her to wear warm clothes. Olaf has to tell her to call for help after Hans leaves her alone to die. She no longer pays for Kristoff’s supplies at Oaken’s store. Almost all of her resourcefulness is gone, and her good ideas and heroic moments have largely been given to other characters. She’s now the fun, party girl character who’s a bit feral, dimwitted and uncouth. But sweet, loyal and funny, with a heart of gold. Who needs intelligence and resourcefulness when you’re nice, popular and have a cute boyfriend? Wait, that’s another musical, isn’t it?
This means that Kristoff, Olaf, Oaken, Pabbie, Hans, and Bulda have more time and bigger speaking parts. Oaken’s family is now an extended family, no hint that he’s gay that I could see. Oaken gets the 2nd act opening song about Hygge, which doesn’t have a direct English translation, but means something like close, cuddly, warm, cosy, snuggly family times. It goes on a little too long, but it’s a fun, funny dance number and Oaken has become a warm, generous character, once he’s done bartering. Kevin Del Aguila is adorable and charming in the role.
His song ends with his large family coming out of the sauna buck naked and doing a chorus line fan dance with greenery branches. It’s completely random. It goes on and on. I watched the kids around me. They sat at attention, totally still, eyes bugging out, mouths hanging open. They couldn’t figure out what the h*ll was happening or why. Inexplicably, in the middle of Frozen, the entire ensemble of grownups was dancing naked in front of them, like something out of Monty Python or Something Rotten. It’ll be interesting to see if that part makes it to opening night on Broadway.
Bulda is a gift from the goddess. I love Olivia Phillips, I love what they did with the character. She’s not changed from the movie, other than becoming a Hidden Person instead of a troll. There’s just more of this fabulous character, and I want even more of her. She’s also virtually the only named female character, outside of Elsa and Anna.
Queen Iduna, played by Ann Sanders, who appears briefly, would be the other. She uses a secret chant to call the Hidden People of the mountains to help young Anna. She tells Bulda that she knows their call because she is from the Northern Nomads. Iduna tries to help her husband, King Agnarr, played by James Brown III, get past his fear of magic, but they die before she’s successful. Both actors infuse their characters with warmth and intelligence. I wish we’d had more time with them.
There’s too much of Pabbie. He’s a narrator, of sorts, supposedly easing us through transitions and clarifying scenes. But, he’s also repetitive, and, frankly, a stereotype of the Noble Savage. His main purpose seems to be to tell us what to think. He tells us what the new message of the show is over and over. I think they were trying to create a character like Rafiki from The Lion King, but it didn’t work. As I said in my first impressions, Bulda would have been a much better choice.
Timothy Hughes does great work as Pabbie. He brings a lot of presence and gravitas to the role, as well as an amazing voice. The problem is with the writing, and the original concept of the character. The actors can only work with what they’re given, and he elevates Pabbie’s material.
The Duke of Weselton is played more for humor than villainy. Robert Creighton was good in the role, but they need to make him more sinister and threatening.
Hans’ role is substantially expanded, and he’s one of the characters, along with Kristoff, that I think benefitted the most from the expansion of their roles. He gets a song to explain his background and motivations, with reprises. We get to see him organizing the citizens of Arendelle and having dealings with the Duke of Weselton. I loved john Riddle in the role. He and Patti Murin were wonderful doing the crazy, OTT choreo for Love Is an Open Door. My only complaint is that with the loss of some of Elsa’s meaningful dialogue, such as their conversation in her cell, and the denouement, we also lost some of Hans’ important scenes from the movie.
Kristoff is as wonderful as ever, and now he gets to sing more than a few lines! Jelani Alladin is charismatic, likable, and very talented. One of the best, most fluid dancers of the leads. He and Anna get a lot of funny physical moments together, along with Olaf and Sven.
Patti Murin is a fantastic Anna, as I’ve written before. She was as amazing as I thought she’d be. She has an incredible singing voice with fantastic vocal control. I loved hearing her on Anna’s new songs. She was great with the physical humor and with the verbal jokes. Patti and Jelani have amazing chemistry as Anna and Kristoff. She and Caissie also have great chemistry, though they don’t see each other much in this version.
Caissie Levy is an excellent Elsa. My complaints about the show have nothing to do with her performance. Her voice soars during Let It Go. She pulls off Elsa’s complex emotions and some (literal) on the fly costume changes. She sounds great on Elsa’s two new songs, Monster and Dangerous to Dream. I don’t like that both of Elsa’s new songs are about holding her back, but Caissie gave them her all.
I think it’s strange that Disney didn’t put much effort into the costumes or the effects. It seemed like whenever they didn’t want to reproduce part of the movie as an effect, if it wasn’t essential to the story, they’d just sort of skip that part and let the stage go dark for a second. Weird, since some things could have been replaced fairly simply. Fingers crossed that they improve the ice effects, large and small.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this show evolves. I’m thinking of tonight as sort of the first draft. It’s possible that it’ll be a very different show by the time of the official opening night on Broadway. I’m betting that Hygge gets shortened, at least one song/reprise gets cut, and at least one song ends up being sung by a different character.
And maybe the Hidden People’s tails will disappear. They’re a good 3 feet long, and I saw at least one actor holding his out-of-the-way at one point. Don’t know if it was scripted or not.
The costumes as a whole are just okay. I kind of wonder if they’re using the designs from the theme park shows. Same for the sets. A few were elaborate, most were very simple. They don’t vary much from the movie.
No matter how much Frozen the Musical gets changed on the way to its Broadway opening night, I think it’s important to know that this is the underlying message that the producers wanted to insert into what started out as one of the most empowering female stories in modern times. We went to this performance because of how much we love the movie. I sat through the second act in shock at what I was seeing. To see Elsa and Anna and their relationship reduced this way is a blow against women.
I tend to think that Disney either thinks this show is a surefire hit, so they don’t have to put much effort into it, or, after the failure of The Little Mermaid, they are scared that another princess show will flop and don’t want to waste money on it. That would explain why so much of the story has been transferred to male characters and the females have been weakened and declawed. They want to appeal to boys. But Matilda and Wicked have both been giant hits with strong female characters carrying the shows. Do they really need Frozen to be a bigger hit than Wicked? Frozen is the most successful animated movie of all time. Why can’t they trust that success and trust female audiences?
ETA 9/8/17: Someone got a pretty good picture of the dress and robe/cape thing. Both have drapes and layers that move and flow when Elsa does, and the dress can appear to be different colors according to changes in lighting, so I’ve seen confusion about whether it’s the same dress. It looks the same to me, based on memory, although they could be making small alterations. It’s just the type of dress that can look very different from photo to photo. By this time next year, Disney stores will be filled with replicas of it, every little girl in the country will want one, and there will be no question about what it looks like.
ETA 9/10/17: I will never be done with this dress. 😬 In the new Jennifer Lawrence psychological horror film Mother!, she wears a virtually identical outfit. She’s even barefoot for maximum victimhood. In the film, her character is terrorized in her own home by a couple of uninvited guests. Kind of like what happens to Elsa in both of her castles in Act 2.
ETA: The production also understood that they were making a change to Elsa’s character on a mythological, archetypal level, as symbolized by the costume change that went along with it, which I wrote about in my other post. It wasn’t an accidental change. For most of the 2nd act, instead of wearing her ice gown, in a style associated with adult female power, she now wears a thin, white, shift dress and is barefoot. (It’s a bit similar to the one in this photo, but Elsa’s is flowing and sheer, looks like rags and doesn’t have a belt. It’s Cinderella’s nightgown.) This look is historically associated with both powerless virgins and witches being led to their executions. Elsa is now sent into her battle for adulthood and her kingdom in little more than rags with no shoes, rather the confidence inspiring outfit she created for herself during Let It Go.
ETA: This was the photo that I originally posted here, but then I thought that the dress was shorter for a while. Now I’ve seen some other images, and I was right the first time, it’s longer, so I’ll put this one back in as well. It’s hard to remember with a flowing scarf hem and a fast moving actress! This isn’t the exact dress either, it’s somewhere between the two, with sparkles on the bodice and more sheer fabric. It’s a fairly popular style these days, it’s just weird for Elsa.