The din during the intermission of a recent performance of the Broadway-bound musical “Frozen” might have broken decibel records at Denver Center’s Buell Theater. No doubt the house’s hum was amped by the higher-pitched voices of the booster-seat crowd, but if Disney Theatrical Productions’ aim was to age up the demographic of the animated blockbuster’s stage adaptation, they’ve succeeded. In its live rendition of “Let It Go,” the signature tune from the 2014 Oscar winner, the musical wows adults as much as kids with a brilliant spectacle — as poignant as it is jaw-dropping — that should ensure the production a hearty run in New York, where the show begins Broadway previews in February.
In that sequence, the Act One finale, the conversion of a mammoth cavern into a beguiling, fractalized ice palace is impressive enough, but the “how’d they do that?” costume change is sheer wizardry. More importantly, the splendid Caissie Levy — playing Elsa, the conflicted royal sister with magical ice powers – lays claim to the power ballad that Idina Menzel made a hit. “Let It Go” indeed.
“Frozen” admittedly borrows from other blockbuster musicals, the most obvious being “Wicked” and Disney’s “The Lion King.” (Leads Levy and Patti Murin have played Elphaba and Glinda, respectively, in “Wicked.”) But in bringing “Frozen” to the stage, director Michael Grandage and his production team have made the show crisp and original. We might even say better — or at least satisfyingly different — than the movie, while being faithful to it.
The creators have added heft and gravitas without making the story darker or scarier — although parents may have to explain what a sociopath is when addressing the personality turnabout in romantic interest Hans. And of the new songs written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez to complement their original score for the film, most deepen the musical’s guiding lesson.
The excellent Levy finds her perfect complement in Murin (“Lysistrata Jones”), who portrays the younger, bubblier sister Anna. A nimble comedian with a warm, crystalline voice, Murin charms as her character comes of age. Her “Love is an Open Door” duet with Prince Hans (John Riddle) teases without winking (much) at the young woman’s pre-sexual awakening.
The grown actresses are matched pound for wee pound by the youngsters playing Anna and Elsa as girls. As Anna, Mattea Conforti’s touching, increasingly plaintive “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” is adorable and winning, and as Elsa, Brooklyn Nelson captures a big sister’s kind attentiveness and, later, her guilt at accidentally harming her No. 1 fan. (The young roles will be shared by Audrey Bennett as Elsa and Ayla Schwartz as Anna.)
When, in keeping with the movie’s plotline, Elsa accidentally freezes Anna, their royal parents (Ann Sanders and James Brown III) reduce the castle staff and turn their daughters into shut-ins. The hyper-conscientious Elsa goes even further, keeping Anna at bay, and before their parents can find a way to help Elsa with her powers, tragedy strikes.
We then meet the adult sisters on the day of Elsa’s coronation. It’s the first time in years the palace has opened to the citizens of the kingdom of Arendelle, and things do not go well.
The musical’s reported development budget of $25 million to $30 million has been well-spent on grand gestures like the “Let It Go” metamorphosis, and on more nuanced details like the pillowy clouds that float past when the gloomy palace’s doors are flung open to reveal beautiful skies. The scale of Arendelle’s wooden palace is imposing, as is Elsa’s mountain refuge.
Gone is the movie’s marshmallow snow monster, but Olaf the comic snowman remains. Greg Hildreth, working a dead-ringer puppet of the animated character, gives sweetly hilarious voice to one of Disney’s best-ever sidekicks, and Andrew Pirozzi hoofs it in a beastly (in the best sense of the word) costume as the reindeer Sven.
The cast’s racial diversity won’t go unnoticed, but it does go unexploited here. Jelani Alladin is charming as Kristoff, the ice purveyor who joins Anna in her quest to bring Elsa back to a deep-iced Arendelle. Meanwhile, Grandage’s production team flexes its muscular magic: Scenic and costume designer Christopher Oram delivers more than one blink-of-an-eye costume change, as lighting designer Natasha Katz, video designer Finn Ross and special effects master Jeremy Chernick create a wintry wonderland.
The ensemble sings beautifully, particularly in a coronation choral piece that sounds like a mix of Gregorian and folk chanting. Among the new tunes written for the show, Anna’s second-act solo “True Love” stands out, while Prince Hans’s introductory number “Hans of the Southern Isles” adds characterization to one of Anna’s presumptive suitors. In a nice twist, Anna, Prince Hans and Kristoff all meet cute on the same day.
Act Two begins with a new song, a high-kicking number (with playful choreography by Rob Ashford) that features shopkeeper Oaken (Kevin Del Aguila) singing “Hygga.” The word is Danish and, though not easily translated into English, it addresses the art of happiness. A song based on a word? Well, it turns out to be a wonderful thing.