Disney's “Frozen” didn't reopen on Broadway in the wake of the pandemic, but the first national tour arrived at the Cadillac Palace Theatre just in time for the holidays. Based on the eponymous 2013 animated film, it's the perfect family friendly entertainment for the season, and judging by the number of little princesses with their parents on opening night, everybody seems to know that.
My baseline for a live Disney musical is that it should somehow improve on the original movie. I'm not sure “Frozen” really does that, and certain things that come easily to computer animation are impossible on stage, but the show does flesh out the story in interesting ways. And it has its own kind of magic.
While Jennifer Lee's book sticks pretty close to her screenplay, which evolved from various attempts at Andersen's fairy tale over several decades, the themes of love, loss and loneliness take on darker shadings with real people in the equation. Sisterly love and the hurt that Anna (Caroline Innerbichler) feels over her unexplained separation from Elsa loom large, as does her journey to be reunited and save the kingdom of Arendelle from eternal winter. We also share Anna's joy when she falls in love at first sight with Hans of the Southern Isles (the dashing Austin Colby), something that can't be replicated by cartoon characters. This augments her disappointment at his betrayal, though by this time the opposites-attract dynamic with iceman Kristoff (Mason Reeves) is in play.
At the center, though, is the strong connection between Innerbichler's Anna and Caroline Bowman as the tormented Elsa, who is so afraid of the harm her power might do to others that she freezes them out (literally and figuratively) and her own heart as well. Both women give excellent performances, and Bowman makes the now-famous “Let It Go” live up to its title, singing her heart out and nailing the dazzling costume change.
The show also benefits from Rob Ashford's choreography and a dozen new numbers by the film’s songwriters, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lope. They range from the light-hearted “A Little Bit of You” to the heart-felt “I Can't Lose You” and join favorites such as “For the First Time in Forever,” “Love Is An Open Door,” “Reindeer Are Better Than People” and “In Summer.” The second-act “Hygee” has nothing to do with the plot but includes a hilarious take-off on “A Chorus Line.”
Guaranteed to delight kids of all ages are the puppets, technologically astute translations of animated creatures to the live format designed by Michael Curry. Kristoff's reindeer Sven (Collin Baja alternating with Evan Strand) manages to be expressive without saying a word, and F. Michael Haynie's Olaf, an ingenious foot puppet, is as talkative and engaging as his film counterpart.
Except for a few missteps, the staging is impressive and, at times, breathtaking. Director Michael Grandage has assembled a topnotch design team headed by multi award-winning scenic and costume designer Christopher Oram, who creates stunning snow scenes and ice palaces illuminated by lighting designer Natasha Katz. Credit also goes to video designer Finn Ross, sound designer Peter Hylenski and special effects designer Jeremy Chernick.
Music supervisor Stephen Oremus, who is responsible for the vocal, incidental and dance arrangements, is joined by Dave Metzger (orchestrations), Chris Montan (executive music producer), David Chase (additional dance arrangements) and Faith Seetoo (music director).
All in all, Disney's “Frozen” is more heart-warming than I expected.
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Through Jan. 22, 2022. $33-$179. broadwayinchicago.com
“The Snow Queen”
First rule of thumb for theatergoers: If you have to read the program to figure out what's going on, something is wrong with the play. Such is the case with The House Theatre of Chicago's “The Snow Queen,” and even if you study the program notes, the storytelling is confusing enough to be incoherent and incomprehensible at times.
Playwright Lanise Antoine Shelley, the House's new artistic director, has transformed Andersen's eponymous story so completely that she really should have renamed it. The focus now is on Chione (Vero Maynez), a young woman who apparently isn't happy in her snowy surroundings. We know this because she talks to her best friend, the white raven Harpier (puppeteer Thomas Tong). If we're up on our Greek/Roman mythology, once we hear the young woman's name, Chione, we can also figure out she's supposed to be the goddess of snow, aka the Snow Queen.
The young woman, having taken off a necklace that seems to symbolize her responsibility for winter, soon meets two children, Kai (Vincent Williams) and Quin (Jackie Seijo), the latter a redo of Andersen's Gerda because they are now non-binary. These two are best friends, though they spend most of the time bickering. Chione, perhaps trying to play well with others, shows them her magic mirror, which allows her to be anywhere it is winter, and they, competing to try it out, shatter it, creating chaos in the environment, putting Kai in a coma, and sending Chione and Quin on a quest to fix things.
The quest, which includes meetings with an unhelpful Smith (Williams) and Womoon (Molly Brennan), who the program says is Mother Earth (though we have no way of knowing that), yields lots of didactic/poetic messaging about climate change and the perilous condition of the planet. The upshot seems to be that Chione, who suffers a personal loss, has to grow up and accept her role as protector of the environment, though it is tempting to see the moral as “don't show your magic toys to strangers.”
Under AmBer Montgomery's direction, the acting tends to be stiff, perhaps because the characters lack depth and dimension. The stars of the show are Jesse Mooney-Bullock's marvelous life-size puppets crafted mostly from recycled materials. Besides Harpier, they are an arctic fox and a bear with her cub (puppeteer Roxy Aviento).
Dennis Watkins' subtle magic design enhances the production, as do Trey Brazeal's lighting design, Liviu Pasare's video design and Olanrewaju Adewole and Kevin O’Donnell's sound design and composition.
But if the House wants to make “The Snow Queen” an annual event, the script needs to be totally rewritten so the story is clear, we care about the characters and the pedantic moralizing is less persistent.
The House Theatre of Chicago, Chopin Theatre Upstairs Mainstage, 1543 W. Division St. Through Jan. 2, 2022. $20-$50. thehousetheatre.com