NEW YORK — Forget girl power, sisterly love and the high-belt clarion call of “Let It Go.” Anxiety over the handling of a precious gift is the theme that comes through loudest in “Frozen,”…
The precious gift is not, I hasten to add, the freeze-ray of Queen Elsa, which threatens her kingdom without any corresponding benefits.
(Couldn’t they at least hook her up to a gelato machine?) Nor is it the warmheartedness of her sister, Anna, which puts her at constant risk of unelective cryogenesis.
No, the precious gift causing so much anxiety at the St. James Theater is the 2013 blockbuster film from which the stage musical has been adapted. After all, $1.3 billion in box office is a lot of ice.
In ways that are both successful and not, you can feel the director, Michael Grandage, and his design team (sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; lights by Natasha Katz) straining to make something artistically worthy of the property’s commercial promise. At least in comparison with the tryout I reviewed in Denver in September, they’re getting closer.
The show’s masterly first 20 minutes, for instance, have been significantly rejiggered since Denver, and show Grandage getting the back story squared away swiftly. As little girls, Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arendelle, are loving besties until their parents, the king and queen, are forced to separate them once Elsa’s leaky magic grows powerful enough to threaten Anna’s safety.
When the girls are then orphaned, the separation becomes permanent. Elsa grows up confined by her power and sense of duty, Anna saddened and rebellious in reaction to their estrangement. It’s like “The Crown” but colder.
Eventful and uninterrupted, with no chance to applaud the songs until Anna’s love interest, Prince Hans, appears a third of the way through the first act, the opening suggests that “Frozen” might prove to be unusually coherent for a Disney musical.
It is also very beautiful to look at. Certainly it does not attempt to lighten a story that’s fundamentally dark. Katz’s moody lighting, all amber and gold and sepia on Oram’s Scandinavian storybook castle, suggests Rembrandt, even if Grandage was going for the feeling of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies.
You know, Shakespeare pastoral comedies like the one in which Elphaba and Glinda are frenemies. (“Wicked” seems a more obvious template for “Frozen” than “As You Like It.”)
In any case, once the castle gates swing open for Elsa’s coronation, letting in townspeople and the requisite Disney cuteness, a different style and palette take over, and “Frozen” begins its long descent into confusion.
The problem has nothing to do with the performances, which are never less than professional if seldom much more than that. As Elsa, Caissie Levy booms out her numbers with astonishing aplomb — her “Let It Go” really is sensational — and, as Anna, Patti Murin makes a charming madcap. Both find what nuances they can in characters very narrowly drawn to type. It’s therefore a huge relief, and feels fully genuine, when they get to share a fleeting smile or giggle.
That they almost never sing together as they head out on separate adventures is a structural problem no one has solved. Nor are the numbers for the subsidiary characters compelling. Still, Prince Hans (John Riddle) is Disney dashing; his rival, the ice seller Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), is beamish; and the creatures (Greg Hildreth as Olaf the snowman and Andrew Pirozzi as Sven the reindeer) are aptly “aw”-worthy and ready for purchase in the lobby.
But these two elements of “Frozen” — the somber and the silly — are not blending, visually, musically or emotionally. Onscreen, the U-turns from Norwegian chanting (“Vuelie”) to musical comedy charm (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”) to Carnaby Street pop (“Love Is an Open Door”) can be made to fit with the anything-goes animation aesthetic.
Onstage, the dozen or so new songs that Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have written to supplement the seven they wrote for the movie feel over-tailored to their moments and, as a result, though in one or two cases lovely, mismatched.
That problem echoes throughout the production. If there are dozens of words for “snow” in circumpolar languages, there are as many looks for ice in “Frozen.” I’m sorry to say that none of these special effects is especially effective, except in reminding you that there are things that cannot be done well onstage. The best attempt is the simplest: a stunning curtain of Swarovski crystals, arranged in patterns that blend traditional Norwegian rosemaling imagery with “Wonderful World of Disney” sparkles and swirls.
But even an elegant solution like that ends up revealing the contradictions baked into the story’s DNA. When Elsa, in the midst of “Let It Go,” transforms from scared little girl to empowered young woman by means of a magical dress trick, it’s the definition of fabulous, but also the definition of Cher. Are we in a Broadway show, an animated movie or a Vegas revue?
The confusion cannot be blamed on Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed the movie and has written the book for the musical. Her work is no worse than that of previous Disney adapters, and in its attention to girls as active characters regardless of men, a good deal better. (For Broadway, Elsa has acquired a don’t-mess-with-me pair of appliquéd trousers to replace a filmy nightgown she wore in the tryout.) But as the material Disney wants to handle gets darker — in this case it is positively neurotic — its formulas get harder to justify.
Not to the bean counters, obviously. Animated musicals and their offshoots have never been so profitable.
But whether “Frozen” will make Disney another billion on Broadway is not my concern. And whether it is suitable family entertainment despite its darkness is a question for parents of young children to decide. The second act seemed to put some of them to sleep — the kids I mean.
The question for me is whether Disney, with the endless resources and talent at its disposal, wants to make its own magical transformation into adulthood. Does it want to create serious, coherent modern musicals instead of cartoons that hedge all bets? If so, it may be time to say let it go to the formulas and the merchandisable reindeer.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.