By Colin Douglas
Almost every little girl who has ever seen the 2013 animated Disney film Frozen — and there are thousands of them — owns an Elsa or Anna costume and knows all the words to the movie’s powerhouse ballad, “Let It Go.” The story behind both the movie and the stage version isn’t too complicated. Like Wicked, it’s a moving tale of female friendship and empowerment in a world that’s largely run by men.
Two sisters grow up as princesses in a beautiful Scandinavian palace. Elsa, the eldest, learns as a child that she possesses the magical power to freeze people and objects, or even create mountains of ice and snow. Anna, her lovingly devoted younger sister, is delighted by Elsa’s powers, but the magic proves dangerous if left uncontrolled. Their parents try to protect their two children by keeping this magic power a secret and making Elsa promise to wear gloves all the time. In this way, they might prevent Elsa’s magic powers from accidentally causing harm to anyone.
After the King and Queen are tragically lost at sea, Elsa inherits the throne. At her coronation, after her gloves are removed, Elsa unintentionally causes their homeland to become frozen. The castle turns into an ice palace and an eternal winter suddenly plagues the whole kingdom. Elsa almost accidentally kills her adored younger sister and so she is banished and runs off into the snowy wilderness.
The rest of the story focuses on how Anna tries to rescue and reunite with her sister. Kristoff a handsome, adventurous young peasant, and his lovable pet reindeer, Sven, finds Anna and endeavors to help. She also comes across Olaf, a likable talking snowman, who wants to lend his assistance. Together the trio sets off to find Elsa and convince her that, despite all that’s happened, Anna still loves and supports her sister. Complications arise but, by the final scene, the villains have been vanquished and true love has conquered all.
The movie was a blockbuster hit and everyone who had enjoyed it was anxious to see it live on stage. Disney Theatrical had already transferred so many of its popular animated films into knockout Broadway hits. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, and even live fantasies, like Mary Poppins, have proven to be even more magical on stage.
Frozen, with a book by Jennifer Lee and a full twenty-song score by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, opened on Broadway in 2018. Ticket sales were outstanding, but reviews were mixed. Then, in March of 2020 the pandemic warranted the shutting down of theatres everywhere. When the Great White Way finally reopened earlier this year, Disney Theatrical decided not to bring Frozen back. They felt it would be too difficult to run three shows on Broadway so, instead, they drew up a national tour. And here we are with an extended run in Chicago, just in time for the holidays.
There’s no denying that this musical is very entertaining, especially with whimsical songs, like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” “Reindeer Are Better Than People,” “In Summer” and “Hygge;” and so many powerful ballads, like “For the First Time in Forever,” “I Can’t Lose You,” “Monster” and, of course, the mega-hit, “Let It Go.” The story is truly heartwarming, especially in depicting the deep relationship between the two sisters. It also features the sometimes humorous bond that develops into a true love between Kristoff and Anna.
Director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford keep this sprawling tale in constant motion, while never losing focus of the two lead characters, whom everyone has come to see. Caroline Bowman and Caroline Innerbichler are both equally outstanding in their star-turning roles of Elsa and Anna, respectively. The chemistry between the two sisters is honest, unmistakable and absolutely heartwarming. Both of these actresses have gorgeous, clarion voices that could easily fill the Cadillac Palace, even without amplification. They both move like trained dancers (which they probably are, based on their program biographies) and they both successfully create true characters who are incredibly likable. That’s so important in any Disney show, because a large percentage of the audience are children who need and want to relate to these characters.
The supporting cast is marvelous. Mason Reeves is dashing and charming as Kristoff, a real leading man capable of holding his own in the middle of so much girl power. The physically strenuous role of Sven the reindeer is shared by two excellent performers with ballet training. Opening night saw talented Collin Baja in the role, while Evan Strand plays Kristoff’s sidekick in alternate performances. F. Michael Haynie is sweet and cuddly as Olaf the Snowman. The musical ode to summer that Olaf offers is a lot of fun. Austin Colby makes a handsome Prince Hans. His character is quite funny when we first meet him, but he turns on a dime in the second half of the musical, showing his true colors. The two sets of child actresses who alternate playing the two young princesses are very good. They include Olivia Jones and Victoria Hope Chan, as Young Anna; and Natalia Artigas and Natalie Grace Chan as Young Elsa.
But for me, in addition to the lovely music and the terrific characterizations, this musical shines in its technical achievements. The extraordinary scenic and costume Designs by Christopher Oram are nothing short of jaw dropping. There’s one particular fast change for Elsa that is simply magical and produces an audible gasp by everyone in the audience. Oram’s impressive sets are enhanced by Natasha Katz’s unbelievable lighting, Finn Ross’s spectacular video design and the astonishing special effects designed by Jeremy Chernick. Watch in wonder at all the incredible, enchanted and entrancing elements of this show, such as the Northern Lights as they move across the sky, the magical frost that Elsa conjures up that travels over the proscenium arch, the blizzard that blows everywhere and falls on stage and the giant icy shards that materialize from the stage floor. These are only a few of the uncanny wonders that dazzle the eye in this production.
Frozen is a big, splashy musical fairy tale with a lot to recommend it. A heartwarming story, told by an excellent hard-working cast of ever-smiling actor/singer/dancers, and directed and choreographed by two accomplished theatrical professionals, make this Equity production a gem, as shiny and polished as ice. However, for all its glitter, glitz and starry girl power, this lavish show, despite its charming characters and unbelievable magic special effects, somehow lacks some of the warm connection found in other Disney musicals for the stage.
Frozen runs through January 22 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all BIC box offices, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.broadwayinchicago.com.