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You already know how you feel about “Let It Go.” At this point, after a 2014 Oscars performance by Idina Menzel (and subsequent win for best original song), a Grammy, and constant in-home sing-alongs by every child with a dream, Frozen’s anthem of self-acceptance has taken on a life of its own, and it’s too late to train a fresh eye on the tune. But there is a moment in the new Broadway musical that captures the energy of the song as you first heard it and focuses it into a lightning-fast quick change. In a single sequined gasp, Queen Elsa becomes Ice Queen Elsa. The applause is immediate; you might say it could set off an avalanche.
Broadway’s Frozen, opening Thursday at the St. James Theatre, is walking a delicate rope bridge in a blizzard. The sets are crystalline or candlelit; the sisterly angst between its leads is all too human. There are elements of the production that feel so intimate as to be brand new. But this is an adaptation of a Disney sensation, and it debuts to an audience of fans young and old who know every word of the original — in some cases, not by choice. In bringing the 2013 animated hit to the Great White Way, the film’s original creative team — composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and writer Jennifer Lee — face the unenviable task of turning a family movie into something a little sleeker, a little deeper, and a little more sophisticated, all without losing its most beloved elements. They aren’t reinventing the snowman, but they’ve certainly built a better Frozen.
If the musical seems at times to be pulled between its elegant virtues and its cartoon instincts, that split is at least mirrored in the sisters at the heart of the story. The eldest is Elsa (Caissie Levy), a queen-to-be hiding her fear of her own magical winter-making abilities behind an air of aloofness. The show knows better than to take her early mantra (“conceal, don’t feel”) to heart; new ballads delve further into her state of mind than “Let It Go” alone could, and the story is richer for it. Levy brings Elsa to life with a powerhouse belt and a deceptively soft touch, revealing a radiant star quality as her character takes ownership of her own dramatic impulses. How’s this for a screen-to-stage shake-up? At one point, Elsa wears pants.
Her counterpoint is Anna (Patti Murin), the bumbling younger sister eager to break out of an imposed isolation and make new friends. Murin is an engaging presence with the bearing of a rom-com sweetheart, and Anna, too, gets more development here than she did in the movie, especially in the pensive second-act solo “True Love.” But Anna is the one who reminds you that this is an adaptation of an animated flick. Her half of the story is peppered with cheeky humor — some of which seems unable to decide if it’s aiming for younger viewers or right over their heads — and romantic misadventures with both the suave Prince Hans (John Riddle) and solitary iceman Kristoff (Jelani Alladin).
Frozen’s restructured plot is fleshed out with 12 new songs from the Lopezes, whose recent Academy Award made Robert the first person in history to double EGOT. The songwriting couple’s original offerings here aren’t likely to eclipse “Let It Go,” but there are a few standouts: Anna and Kristoff’s teasing duet “What Do You Know About Love?” is a charmer, and Elsa goes darker in the pop-infused “Monster.” Save for Act 2 opener “Hygge,” a partly nude fever dream with a high-stepping chorus of spa-goers that raises some eyebrows, the new numbers are familiar enough to feel like they’ve been around the whole time. Rob Ashford’s choreography rarely has cause to let loose but is often a treat, and the production as a whole makes creative use of bodies. (In particular, the death of Anna and Elsa’s parents plays out cleverly, with just the right amount of restraint.)
A few uneven elements sneak in, mainly in the form of side characters. The trolls who raised Kristoff are replaced here by the Hidden Folk, creatures from Scandinavian folklore with glow-stick necklaces, tails, and a vaguely dirty energy that feels out of step with the polished main characters, though they do at least get the liveliest dance number in “Fixer Upper.” The sidekicks are mismatched: Kristoff’s reindeer, Sven, roams the stage like an unsettling outcast from a Scandinavian version of The Lion King, while snowman Olaf is a cuddly puppet whose look remains unchanged from the movie. Actor Greg Hildreth lands some punch lines in what could have been a thankless puppeteering role, but it feels like the production missed out on the opportunity to redesign a character who sticks out even in the film.
Notably, Frozen’s path to Broadway has been stormy. The production cycled through two directors, two set designers, three choreographers, and two Elsas before its tryout run in Denver, and some of those conflicting influences can be felt in the final product. But Tony-winning director Michael Grandage refines the tale by putting the focus on the emotion first. Grandage is a director accustomed to Shakespeare and therefore to people trapped by secrets — even in the midst of glittering sets and impressive snow tricks, the bond between the sisters effectively and literally takes the spotlight. Fans of the movie will be pleased to find Anna and Elsa safe in Levy and Murin’s gloved hands, and doubters may just find their hearts thawed. B+