As Princess Elsa says in this snowy, showy stage adaptation of the popular Disney movie, “I’m not as cold as I seem.” Credit the thawing trend in Broadway’s “Frozen” to the lovable characters of Jennifer Lee, who wrote the film and now writes the book for the stage musical, and to the warmly human cast assembled by director Michael Grandage. Caissie Levy is stunning as Elsa, the beautiful princess with the cursed gift to turn her kingdom into ice, and Patti Murin makes a darling Anna, the earthbound princess whose love for her sister is the only thing that can set Elsa free.
The theater’s legendary powers notwithstanding, there’s no way that the all-too-solid stage of the St. James Theater can approximate the technical virtuosity of a movie setting. Rather, the magic of the theater comes from its power to open up the world of the imagination. Emerging from the dancing lights of the aurora borealis (as fashioned by lighting designer Natasha Katz) projected on the scrim (by video designer Finn Ross), Christopher Oram’s sets are highly stylized and very theatrical, if not transporting.
The story opens in summer, a golden but ephemeral season in this northern land of snow and ice. The townspeople are celebrating the sunshine (“Vuelie”) and the princesses are playing in the castle, here depicted in an intimidating setting of dark woods and shuttered windows. Young Anna (Mattea Conforti) mischievously coaxes her older sister, Young Elsa (Ayla Schwartz), into conjuring snow in summer (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”).
The girls’ devotion (“A Little Bit of You”) is sweet, moving Elsa to make it snow. But this demonstration of magic so alarms the girls’ anxious parents, King Agnarr (James Brown III) and Queen Iduna (Ann Sanders), that they venture out to find a way to save the princess from her dangerous gifts. Alas, they perish at sea, leaving Elsa in uncertain charge of her powers.
Flash forward to the girls all grown up and longing to see life outside the palace — and to fall in love (“For the First Time in Forever”). Princess Anna of Arendelle meets and impulsively falls for Prince Hans (John Riddle, as bland as his role, singing “Hans of the Southern Isles”), while Elsa surrenders to her preordained role of Queen, singing the sad and lovely new song, “Dangerous to Dream.” (All the show’s new tunes are by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the Oscar-winning duo behind the movie’s musical numbers.)
But before the show completely settles in to wall-to-wall romanticism, the comic relief shows up to lighten the mood.
Alarmed by her inability to contain her dark powers, Elsa flees the safety of the castle for the perils of the mountains, where the scenery perks up a bit. Here, in her panic, she creates a “surprise, magical, summer blizzard” that overwhelms Kristoff, a kind ice merchant played with great bonhomie by Jelani Alladin, and his endearing reindeer, Sven (embodied with puppetry by the unseen but appreciated Andrew Pirozzi).
As a mood-lightening song, “Reindeers Are Better than People” (which contains the memorable lyric: “Reindeers are better than people … but people smell better than reindeers”) goes a long way in this cold climate. It also sets up “What Do You Know About Love?,” a new tune that’s a lovely, lyrical duet between Kristoff and Anna.
Finally, here it comes, what all of us grownups have been waiting for: the entrance of Olaf, the funny little snowman the sisters created long ago, when they were children playing in the nursery. In “person,” Olaf is a goofy looking puppet. (“Hi, everyone. I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs.”) As interpreted and manipulated by actor Greg Hildreth, he’s a clever little scamp who brings a lot of heart and humor to this chilly show.
To the extent that a plot exists at all, it’s a soggy one. There’s a lame attempt to make a villain of the ambitious Duke Weselton (Robert Creighton), but the real conflict, the stuff of drama, is all internal — Elsa battling her inner self — and difficult to dramatize. The show succeeds best at this challenge in the familiar anthem “Let It Go,” Elsa’s despairing acceptance of her dark-magic gift.
Levy sends her silvery soprano into the stratosphere in this first act closing number, as she does in “Monster,” another new song in the show. The lyricists really wrapped themselves around that latter tune, in which Elsa dares to contemplate killing herself to save her kingdom: “But before I / Fade to white / I’ll do all that I can / To make things right,” she vows.
As much as Anna twinkles about the joys of being alive and in love, “Frozen” belongs to Elsa, who has the heroic stature and tragic flaw of a true heroine — but no villainous anti-hero to overcome in battle. What a waste.