The team behind the stage version of Frozen that had its world premiere in Denver Thursday night promised a show that would offer adults a deeper exploration of the Disney tale of two orphaned princesses who learn to let go of the pain in their hearts.
Of course the newest incarnation of Frozen, which is being staged at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Buell Theatre, also has to appeal to the toddlers in tiaras who made the 2013 movie a billion-dollar success, and who will surely wheedle their parents into taking them to see their animated heroes brought to life on stage.
In Denver, an audience full of little girls in ice-blue dresses--and one teen girl in an Olaf outfit--rewarded lines and songs familiar from the movie with laughs and applause.
“Let it Go” belted out by Caissie Levy as Elsa was a particular crowd pleaser. Eager fans had clapped rhythmically at show time at 7:30. The action began about five minutes late.
Frozen is hardly edgy. For anyone who missed the movie, princesses Anna (Kristen Bell on screen) and Elsa (Idina Menzel on screen) are close as children. They are torn apart because Elsa has the power to transform anything to ice, which she learns to fear before learning to control.
The story includes a hero--though it’s not who you initially think it is. But the princesses need nothing but love, courage and each other to save themselves.
Death, loneliness and longing drive the action. There is adventure to stir the heart and pathos to move it. “Is everyone in danger as long as I’m alive?” Elsa sings. She contemplates suicide, but ultimately gains confidence from her powers. “I have to stay alive to fix what I’ve done,” she concludes.
Frozen has been in previews since August in Denver, where it is to run until Oct. 1 before moving to Broadway next year. Denver audiences are used to helping creators test work before it moves to New York. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), a well-regarded regional theater, produces its own shows as well as hosts touring productions.
Frozen is likely to suffer by comparison to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which also has a magical element and cinematic roots and opens on Broadway next year. Cursed Child has more sophisticated big effects, while Frozen relies for the most part on lights, projections, drops, fog and sometimes clunkily moving scenery.
But Frozen also has moments of old-school theatrical magic in the costuming and movement of Andrew Pirozzi, who plays the silent reindeer Sven, and in the puppetry and voicework of Greg Hildreth as the snowman Olaf.
Four-year-old Lucy Nork, who came to the show with her mother and aunt, said she had seen the movie “lots of times in my house.” Elsa’s dress, she said, sparkled better on stage. Her mother Carey Nork said she was impressed with special effects that included a quick onstage costume change by Levy during “Let it Go.”
With a running time of about two and a half hours including intermission, Frozen meant a long night for Lucy and other young audience members.
Disney, which also debuted Little Mermaid in Denver a decade ago, brought in top talent for Frozen. Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed the movie, is credited with the stage book.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the couple who wrote the music and lyrics for the screen, wrote new songs for the stage Frozen. Their music was the most accomplished element of the show. They offered chirpy pop tunes, confessional ballads, hymns and even a nod to vaudeville in songs that gave the characters' inner lives.
A duet by the actresses playing young Elsa and Anna and a love lullaby Kristoff sings a grown-up Anna were particularly effective.
Lee worked from Hans Christian Andersen, her re-telling of The Snow Queen a modern cautionary tale of what can happen when a woman is forced into a cage of expectation. It also offers a feisty, warm-hearted Anna who is surprisingly resourceful for someone who’s led such a sheltered life. And Elsa is a badass.
The stage version lacks the captivating colors and vistas seen on screen. Ashford can’t quite make up for them with big dance numbers, including an extended drinking song outside a sauna whose chief purpose seems to be putting Anna in a skimpy towel. Also missing are the movie’s trolls, replaced on stage by “hidden folk” who owe more than perhaps is necessary to Cats.
Jelani Alladin will be making his Broadway debut as Kristoff. Levy and Patti Murin, who played Anna, are Broadway veterans, as is the show’s Tony-winning choreographer Rob Ashford.
Frozen director Michael Grandage won a Tony in 2010 for Red. Grandage brought that two-character drama about Mark Rothko to New York from London’s Donmar Warehouse.
In a video for DCPA, Grandage spoke of the strong “narrative arc” of Frozen and pledged to “go quite deep” with his production.
Under his direction, the story got a more complex villain. But in the end, older audience members responded to the elements that made the movie work.
Amelia Santamaria and Alex Cruz didn’t even bring their 12-year-old daughter. The couple left her at home in Los Angeles when they traveled to Denver to celebrate Cruz’s birthday with a football game and an evening at the theater.
Santamaria chose the show, saying she’s long been a Frozen fan. Cruz said he was skeptical at first, but drawn in by droll Olaf and by effects that surprised him.
“I wasn’t expecting something like that,” Cruz said of the first scene in which ice takes hold of the stage. His sense of marvel was shared by many around him: the premiere ended with a standing ovation.
Frozen is at the Buell Theatre, DCPA, Denver, until October 1. Book tickets here.