The stage adaptation of Disney’s massively successful 2013 animation possesses the same magic that made the original so beloved
Starring Stephanie McKeon, Samantha Barks, Craig Gallivan, Oliver Ormson, and Obioma Ugoala
It is perhaps no surprise that runaway 2013 hit Frozen would follow in the footsteps of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin in being adapted for the stage. Spawning incredible hype, becoming the highest grossing animated movie of all time (until Toy Story 3 overtook it) and peaking at the fifth highest grossing movie ever, as well as bagging two Academy Awards, Frozen was catapulted into mainstream consciousness in a way that contemporary Disney animated features, such as Tangled and Princess and the Frog had struggled to attain – and has struggled to achieve since.
In a story that’s all about a young Queen tortured by her own magical gifts, almost killing her sister and running away to an obscure mountain top, perhaps this response was unexpected. Ultimately, however, the element that resonated with audiences, beyond Elsa’s magical abilities was the central positioning of Queen Elsa and younger sister Anna’s relationship. Additionally, Elsa’s journey towards self acceptance proved poignant for many members of the audience, including the LGBT community, who have since co-opted “Let It Go” as a queer anthem. It is incredibly rare for a Disney film to have such resonance and applicability beyond the narrow scope of its own plot, but it’s this relatability that Frozen‘s stage adaptation has wisely expanded upon.
Originally debuting on Broadway, reuniting the film’s creatives Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez and Jennifer Lee to provide new songs and a fresh book, Frozen unfortunately had to close its gates permanently in 2020 as a result of the COVID pandemic. Intended to debut in the Autumn of 2020, Frozen‘s West End iteration suffered multiple delays, before finally opening in August 2021.
Just like the film that came before it, Frozen: The Musical places at its heart the troubled relationship between sisters Anna (Stephanie McKeon) and Elsa (Samantha Barks). Despite the fact that they are both princesses, and Elsa possesses powerful, potentially deadly ice magic, it is their relationship that the narrative focuses upon. Additionally, the effects of Elsa’s self-isolation out of fear of hurting those around her are keenly felt throughout.
With all of the brilliant songs from the 2013 film, Frozen expands upon the original material by incorporating a barrage of new additions which merely help to enhance the characters that we already know. “What Do You Know About Love?” is a wonderful sparring match between Anna and Kristoff (Obioma Ugoala), two characters who didn’t receive a love duet in either Frozen or 2019’s Frozen II and “Hygge” is a riotously funny Act 2 opener, providing much needed levity.
Hans (Oliver Ormson) is also given far more light and shade (despite the fact that every member of the audience will doubtless already be aware of his devious machinations), singing “Hans of the Southern Isles”. Elsa and Anna are also given greater depth, with Elsa singing the wistfully mournful “Dangerous to Dream”, about her desperation to be able to connect with Anna but feeling isolated by her power. Replacing “For the First Time In Forever (Reprise)”, which was present in the original Broadway production, with “I Can’t Lose You” further allows for Anna and Elsa’s longing for connection to take centre stage and adds to the stage musical being far more emotive and nuanced than the film.
For those audience members worried that stage versions of the iconic songs will not live up to their realisation within the animated film, this could not be further from the truth. Frozen pulls every theatrical trick out of the book, with an obscenely impressive set design by Christopher Oram marrying well with Finn Ross’ video design, which gives an already large scale set far more depth. Additionally, these projections work well with Jeremy Chernick’s special effects design to achieve Elsa’s multiple magical effects, including a frosty proscenium and dangerous looking icy shards that burst out of the stage floor itself. Coupled with a clearly highly efficient stage management team, this makes moments such as Elsa’s construction of her ice palace in the climax of “Let It Go” really soar, as well as a jaw-dropping costume reveal that will even have adults in the audience wondering quite how it was achieved so seamlessly.
The performances of the cast are utterly sublime. Stephanie McKeon is clearly the star here, the additions to Frozen‘s original material giving the bubbly, wide-eyed and innocent Anna far more to do than previously. Humorous and vulnerable, it’s impossible not to fall in love with McKeon’s character, and her vocals are immensely powerful. That is, of course, not to diminish the star quality of McKeon’s costar Samantha Barks, who is similarly captivating to watch. Barks nails the closed off and – pun intended – icy qualities of Elsa with aplomb, giving a real sense of nuance and justification to Elsa’s behaviour, which is no mean feat considering the change of medium to stage. It is not possible on the stage to convey to the audience via micro-expressions every nuance the character feels, but Barks still makes Elsa’s character journey incredibly apparent, even amidst a book that does not entirely service the development of her character.
Indeed, though the musical does a lot to trim the fat – much less focus is given, for example, to fan-favourite Olaf (Craig Gallivan) or Sven – and feels far more about Anna and Elsa above all else, the book is so streamlined and the pace so quick that it does not necessarily develop Elsa’s character as much as she is physically on stage. While “Dangerous to Dream” mines extra depth from Elsa, her Act 2 number “Monster” falls slightly flat. While Elsa questions whether or not she has actually become a monster, the message of the song becomes diluted and confused by the awkward staging. It is a necessary part of Elsa’s journey, as she pulls herself back from becoming a killer, even as she is attacked, but it could have been achieved more dramatically on stage compared to Samantha Barks pacing from downstage left to downstage right to downstage left while slowly moving walls of ice push the ensemble further away.
McKeon and Barks’ performances are matched by the rest of the cast, with Ormson providing a wonderfully charming Hans, Ugoala is a gruff but thoroughly earnest Kristoff, Craig Gallivan is perhaps too eerily similar to Josh Gad’s Olaf, and the ensemble bring the entire of Theatre Royal Drury Lane to life with their astoundingly affecting vocals.
The pacing of the show is somewhat relentless, which is vital considering the large number of young viewers that Frozen attracts, but this does mean that there are sacrifices when it comes to how deep or nuanced the material can be. Meanwhile, the gorgeously realised sets do bring with them compromises when it comes to the staging, which at times lacks creativity and leads the performers to merely pace around.
However, these are small qualms. Ultimately, Frozen is everything that a musical should be. It is the definition of a spectacle, with brilliant sets, an energetic ensemble and effectively used video design that merges with the existing space seamlessly, serving only to enhance what is there. Similarly, the additions to the source material serve to refine the messages and themes already in existence and bring the story to life in an entirely new way. Fun for the whole family, Frozen: The Musical doubtless has a bright future ahead in the stunningly renovated Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
Frozen: The Musical is currently accepting bookings up until June 2022. You can book tickets here. (I wish I got money off bookings that were redirected through here, but I don’t. I gain absolutely nothing through you buying tickets to see this show, other than the satisfaction that you’ve had a wonderful day out at the theatre. Though if you were to book and to despise children, as so many self respecting adults do, book for a Wednesday or Thursday night. The show is blissfully only 2 and a bit hours, so you’ll be home and in bed in plenty of time).