By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
One of the most unanticipated closures on Broadway due to the COVID pandemic was the announcement from the Disney Theatrical Group that Frozen: The Musical would not be reopening once it was safe to return.
While the cost for the musical to be mounted at the St. James Theatre was estimated at a whopping $35 million, it had brought in an impressive $150 million and had been seen by 1.3 million patrons since it opened in early 2018. That’s an impressive 80 to 90 percent of the house potential every show.
According to some reports, the cost of keeping all the actors, technicians and others on salary while the theater was shuttered figured into the decision by Disney, which was also looking to bring back Aladdin and The Lion King. Still, the steady number of parents and children who saw the Disney animated movie “Frozen” (or potential audience members who fell in love with the highest grossing film of 2013 or purchased the Blu-Ray or DVD) should have been enough to keep the show rolling in frozen dough for a long, long time.
The Disney Theatrical Group has had ample experience putting on successful runs prior to Frozen. They know how to rely on special effects to augment the performers on the stage or, sometimes, in the aisles and thus enhance the audience’s experiences. Frozen is truly a technical achievement of the highest order with the special effects driving the actors on stage.
The national touring company of Frozen: The Musical has encamped at the Saenger Theater for an unusually long period, playing now through February 20. It is a testament to the strength of the local audiences who have set box office records previously for Wicked and Hamilton both at the Saenger and the slightly smaller Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
But this is the Disney company and the formula is time proven. Give the audience a spectacle with top-notch talent, fabulous songs and orchestrations plus inventive choreography and a successful run you will have.
This is an Actors Equity company and the cast is brimming with talent. In the roles of Elsa and Anna are two Carolines. Caroline Bowman plays Elsa, the Arendale princess cum queen who holds a terrible secret. Caroline Innerbichler portrays the more playful, slightly gullible younger princess Anna.
Based in part on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” Frozen: The Musical closely follows the screenplay of the movie on which it is based. The book by Jennifer Lee does emphasize more of the psychological drama in the relationship between the two sisters. Elsa is concerned that her power could grow out of control and hurt the one she loves best, her little sister. Anna is confused by Elsa’s distancing and a general lack of, well, warmth towards her.
Bowman’s icy performance is magnificently portrayed, but her full force soprano is held back until the Act One closer “Let It Go.” When she unleashes the power of her voice, complemented by the amazing special effects depicting ice shards, crystals and snow, literals sparks fly. If ever there was a contest for the best Disney song meant to display vocal prowess, “Let It Go” would surely be at the top of the list. Interestingly, Idina Menzel, whose “Defying Gravity” from Wicked has been considered one of the most vocally challenging, was the voice behind this song in the original animated classic.
The special effect of her costume change in that song is the highlight of the show with enough amazed expressions on the faces of children and adults alike to back up that claim.
But this is not a one-woman show. In fact, it might be said that the emotional maturity that Anna undergoes is even more dramatic than the powerful force emitted from her sister’s hands. Innerbichler sparkles in the first of her featured songs “For the First Time in Forever” with a clear and resounding upper register.
For comic relief, F. Michael Haynie provides the puppetry and the speaking and singing voice of Olaf, the enchanted snowman who longs for an ill-advised warm spell in the song “In Summer.”
As Kristoff, Mason Reeves plays the reluctant hero quite well. He accompanies Anna on her search to find her missing sister with his sturdy reindeer pal, Sven, played alternately by Colin Baja and Evan Strand. The stress of playing Sven in costume while moving the front legs to simulate a reindeer’s gate must be grueling, if not steamy. But like the fabled animated figures brought to life at the Disney amusement parks, they are not able to remove their costumes remaining incognito and hidden from our view.
The strong cast also includes Austin Colby, who plays the beguiling Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who charms his way into Anna’s heart in the charming duet “Love Is an Open Door” with Anna. Also of note is Weselton, played by Jeremy Morse, an actor who played here previously in the national tour of “Waitress” as Ogie, a replacement role he played in the original cast on Broadway.
With the exception of one scene in Act II, both Elsa and Anna are portrayed as youngsters at the beginning medley of songs in the first act by two sets of child performers. Victoria Hope Chan and Olivia Jones alternate as Anna, while Natalie Grace Chan and Arwen Monzon-Sanders play Elsa on alternating performances. The scenes are needed exposition from the previous decade to set the action that follows throughout the remainder of the book by Jennifer Lee.
The ensemble are seen in full view in the opening scenes for Acts I and II “Vuelle” and “Hygge,” respectively, although not entirely in full view in the latter. That’s because “Hygge,” led by cast member Michael Milkanin, is a fun, well-choreographed piece (Rob Ashford) in which the mountain villagers display their ample charms while utilizing a sauna. What might tend to be problematic for a Disney production is adroitly handled by the cast members with branches in hands covering their neighbors and each other in expert timing with the music by Christophe Beck and Frode Fjellheim.
That brings us to all the other music, which is provided by Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the successful married song writing team, who composed the music and lyrics for the original film, too. Again, the success of the songs for Frozen: The Musical was based on their original soundtrack and development was rather quick for a Broadway musical. It was announced in 2014 it would be transformed into a vehicle for adults as well as kids and following a successful out-of-town tryout in 2017, opened at the St. James Theatre early the next year.
Many of the songs are humorous like “Fixer Upper” and “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People,” while others tend to be more dramatic such as “Queen Anointed” and “Dangerous to Dream,” led by Elsa and the townspeople.
Technical designs are all excellent with lighting by Natasha Katz, sound by Peter Hylenski and scenic and costume designs by Christopher Dram.
Directed by Michael Grandage, Frozen: The Musical continues its run at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street in New Orleans through February 20. For tickets, go to saengernola.com or Ticketmaster. For more information, dial 504-525-1052.