CLEVELAND, Ohio – Disney’s “Frozen” isn’t just a musical. It’s an experience.
So if the prospect of sharing the theater with hundreds of children dressed as princesses or snowmen, listening to those children sing songs they know by heart and watching a show that’s more stylish than substantial hurts you a little comfortable, you better, well, let it go. Because you would miss a magical evening at the theater.
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On view at the KeyBank State Theater in Playhouse Squre until September 11, “Frozen” tells the same story as the beloved 2013 film, but enhanced with 12 original songs from the Oscar-winning duo of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
Directed by Michael Grandage with a book by Jennifer Lee, the musical wastes no time in tackling new material with an extended opening. Young Elsa (Natalie Grace Chan), the heir to the throne of Arendelle, has magical powers that can turn anything into ice. Anna (Victoria Hope Chan) is his devoted and precocious younger sister. One night while playing, Elsa accidentally freezes Anna’s brain. Their parents, King Agnarr (Kyle Lamar Mitchell) and Queen Iduna (Belinda Allyn), rush the girls to the Hidden People (no trolls here!), who heal Anna, but thereby erase her memory of the incident. Desperate to protect Anna, the King and Queen lock Elsa in her room and leave the kingdom in search of a cure for her powers being lost at sea.
The result is a more heartwarming and heartbreaking prologue than the original. Natalie Grace Chan and Victoria Hope Chan are adorable as young Elsa and young Anna. The real-life sisters add unexpected depth and authenticity to their scenes together, especially on the charming “A Little Bit of You” number. The longer opening also does a better job of establishing the king and queen as loving, if not conflicted, parents. Their deaths carry much more impact here than in the film where they are treated as a practical plot.
Broadway veteran Caroline Bowman and original cast member Lauren Nicole Chapman reprise the roles of Elsa and Anna, respectively, on the familiar songs “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “For the first time in forever”. It’s a punch full of awesome vocals, lush orchestration, cool effects, and creative staging. Still, the real beauty of the footage is seeing the faces of the children in the audience as they watch their favorite Disney Princesses come to life before their very eyes.
But the moment is fleeting because there is still much to do. Elsa becomes queen and Anna falls impulsively in love with a handsome, seemingly well-meaning prince named Hans (Ryan McCartan). In her anger, Elsa inadvertently sends Arendelle into eternal winter and leaves. Anna runs after her and enlists the help of mountaineer Kristoff (Zach Trimmer), her faithful reindeer Sven (Collin Baja) and Olaf (F. Michael Haynie), an enchanted snowman who loves cuddles warm.
It’s an almost forgettable stretch that lays out the essentials of adapting an hour and 40 minute animated film into a 2 hour and 20 minute stage spectacle. Sure, the new songs give the musical the depth the movie lacked, but some of them feel unnecessary. I’m not sure, for example, if Hans necessarily needs two solo numbers or if Kristoff’s tribute to Sven serves any purpose other than making the wait for “Let It Go” more excruciating.
The good news is that the song you came to see is worth it. Like “Memory” from “Cats” or “You Will Be Found” from “Dear Evan Hansen,” Bowman’s rendition of “Let It Go” is the type of jaw-dropping number that sends the entire production into a different stratosphere. The actress, who like Idina Menzel played Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway, opens the song with the same desperation and loneliness that Menzel brought to the film version. Slowly her voice becomes more determined, gaining confidence until she lets loose on the chorus. Powered by Bowman’s considerable pipes and enhanced by a dazzling costume change and stunning effects that bring Elsa’s ice castle to life, the moment is a crescendo of emotion and a reminder that live theater is unlike any other entertainment experience.
It’s a tough act to follow, but thankfully the show is noticeably faster and the new songs decidedly more memorable the rest of the way. Nixing Marshmallow the Snow Monster was also a solid choice. Benefiting from this change, trading post and sauna owner Oaken (Michael Milkanin) gets a chance to shine in “Hygge,” a funny, lavishly choreographed, and slightly risque musical number you didn’t know you had. you needed. “I Can’t Lose You,” meanwhile, is a touching ballad that explores Anna and Elsa’s chilling relationship in a way the movie never did. The song gives Chapman, whose Anna is clumsier and more vulnerable than Kristen Bell’s version, the best opportunity to show off her impressive vocals.
Indeed, the show is packed with solid performances from top to bottom. In addition to the two leads, featured stars include Haynie, who, doubling as actor and puppeteer, brings an infectious optimism and underlying melancholy to Olaf, especially on the poignant “In Summer.” McCartan’s turn as Hans is so serious that you might wonder, as I did, if his character’s deceitful nature had been tampered with. The show didn’t miss a beat on opening night with Trimmer’s multi-talented pinch for Mason Reeves as Kristoff. Her scenes with Chapman’s Anna were fun, seductive, and full of chemistry. And I’m still not convinced there aren’t two people in Sven’s costume!
“Frozen” is not the perfect musical. It often feels overloaded with alien musical numbers, elaborate costumes, larger-than-life sets, and flashy effects serving as distractions from the somewhat flimsy story and numerous plot holes. But try to see it through the eyes of a child instead. Feel, don’t hide. Enjoy the show and – you guessed it – let it go.
Disney’s “Frozen” is now playing at the KeyBank State Theater, 1519 Euclid Ave. in Cleveland, until September 11. Tickets starting at $39 are available now at playhousesquare.org.