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'Frozen' on Broadway: It's no 'Tempest' (or 'Lion King'), but the musical sings with sisterly appeal

'Frozen' on Broadway: It's no 'Tempest' (or 'Lion King'), but the musical sings with sisterly appeal
Caissie Levy is Elsa, left, and Patti Murin is Anna in the Broadway adaptation of "Frozen." (Deen van Meer)

No one attending “Frozen,” the new Broadway musical that had its official opening on Thursday at the St. James Theatre, is meant to ponder the rise of extreme weather events. Leave it to a spoilsport critic, escaping an atmospheric river on one coast only to be met with a nor’easter on the other, to connect the psychological metaphor of a freakish summer blizzard onstage with the battering reality of climate change.

Disney, like Blanche DuBois, wants magic, not realism. And were there more enchantment to this relentlessly perky stage adaptation of the highest-grossing animated movie in history, my mind probably wouldn’t have strayed from the path of fantasy and fallen victim to the mudslide of fact.

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With music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and a book by Jennifer Lee, Disney’s latest brand extension has conscripted into service three key players from the movie’s creative team. But thundersnow hasn’t struck twice. As Disney stage musicals go, this nobly multicultural, unabashedly earnest show is bound to add many more millions to the company’s coffers. Yet it’s a far cry from the whirligig imagination of “The Lion King.” If truth in advertising prevailed, the marquee would read, “Moderately entertaining and fortified with vitamins and minerals!”

The production, directed by Michael Grandage, begins on a surprisingly modest note. When Elsa and her younger sister, Anna, are frolicking around the palace as children, the elder princess’ bizarre snow-making powers amount to little more than a spurt of confetti. The decision not to compete with the film’s visual ingenuity makes perfect sense, but the wizardry here seems like something I could have cooked up with loose-leaf paper and a pair of scissors.

The special effects become more sensational as Elsa’s sorcery strengthens with age. And the production earns extra points for the delightful human-puppet hybrids that bring to life Olaf (Greg Hildreth), the fey snowman who adores warm hugs, and Sven (Andrew Pirozzi), the trusty reindeer who accompanies his master, the handsome ice-peddler Kristoff (a jocularly amiable Jelani Alladin), through all kinds of blustery adventures.

But Grandage, a British director whose commanding clarity of storytelling has relighted classics from Shakespeare to Schiller, approaches the musical as though it were “The Winter’s Tale.” But there’s no lyrical language in the show to compel us to awaken our faith, as Paulina instructs King Leontes before animating the statue of his dead wife at the end of Shakespeare’s romance. “Frozen” is more Broadway machine than dramatic poem.

There’s much to admire in a modern fairy tale that wants to resist the romantic traps of the genre. “Frozen” elevates the bond between sisters over more traditional hetero-normative endings. The refreshingly female-centered story is laden with nuggets of updated moral wisdom.

Impulsive, fun-loving and self-deprecating Anna discovers the extent of her courage and loyalty after her big sister, in a fit of pique, plunges the kingdom into a deep freeze on her coronation day and runs away to live alone with her anger and shame in a remote ice castle. It takes time — indeed an entire musical — for Elsa to learn that what marks her as dangerously different is also the source of her majestic uniqueness.

The film found depth in the sisters’ quest to thaw their own hearts by an act of true love, but the material can only withstand so much gravity. The genius doesn’t inhere in Lee’s screenplay but in the total package. “Frozen” excels as an animated movie musical, not as a profound work of children’s literature. Grandage lays too much emphasis on the psychology of characters who can’t sustain the weight of so much dramatic complexity.

Not that the show’s captivating leads, Caissie Levy as Elsa and Patti Murin as Anna, don’t charmingly incarnate these beloved animated screen figures. Beneath the chilly hauteur of Levy’s Elsa lies a world of fear, sadness and confusion. Murin’s Anna is the perky younger sibling hell-bent on adventure and prone to embarrassing mishaps. Their childhood counterparts (played at the reviewed performance by Ayla Schwartz and Mattea Conforti) more than fill the adorable bill.

The best songs are plucked from the movie. The simple lyrics of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “For the First Time in Forever” trace the youthful wonder of the sisters as they move from childhood to the brink of adulthood. In “Love Is an Open Door,” Anna, still full of adolescent wishes despite the heartache of a mysterious rift with her sister, heedlessly succumbs to romance with handsome, too-good-to-be-true Hans (John Riddle, impressive in every way) in a pop number pulsating with blind hope.

“Let It Go,” the song that not too long ago colonized the airwaves with a seemingly ubiquitous military force, brings down the curtain on Act 1. It’s a tough number to belt out on command night after night, but Levy smartly husbands her vocal resources, delivering the boom when extra power is needed in an interpretation that is true to both Idina Menzel’s shadings and Levy’s own knowledge of the character’s frostbitten heart.

The design team ups its game after the kingdom is imprisoned in permanent winter. The dark paneling of Christopher Oram’s set transforms into a graphic-novel-style alpine landscape shot through with the menacing shadows of Natasha Katz’s lighting.

Caissie Levy as Elsa in "Frozen," with set design by Christopher Oram and lighting by Natasha Katz.
Caissie Levy as Elsa in "Frozen," with set design by Christopher Oram and lighting by Natasha Katz. (Deen van Meer)

Elsa’s mountain hideaway is bejeweled with ice, perfect for a young queen who has grown tired of concealing her true nature. When she changes costumes (more of Oram’s imaginative handiwork) in a royal declaration of frigid independence, the switch, magically orchestrated, is a genuine coup de theater.

In general, the production opts less for glitzy tricks than for old-fashioned musical comedy goofiness. Some of the humor is targeted to a younger audience, but there is plenty of elbow-nudging wit for the adults in the house.

The comic sweetness pairs nicely with the simplicity of the better songs. Sometimes, though, when the energy is ratcheted up (as with the rollicking “Hygge”), the number can feel like an excuse for choreographer Rob Ashford to showcase the full catalog of his pastiche gifts. One dark ditty that should have been excised is “Hidden Folk,” the clunky appeal to the community of creatures previously known as trolls before political correctness (and uninspired songwriting) intervened.

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“Frozen” likely won’t have many repeat customers, but its agreeable competence will satisfy hardcore fans who are curious to understand more about the plucky, climate-meddling heroines who devise their own happy ending through sisterly solidarity.

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