There’s one spectacularly tacky moment in Disney’s animated film “Frozen.” It’s when the young Queen Elsa, having fled into a wintry self-imposed exile, decides to embrace and then unleash her lethal power to congeal everything in sight into ice. Since she’s already living in sub-freezing temperatures so it’s not really such a big deal. Regardless, upon braying her first “Let it go!” this North Face-attired queen immediately morphs into a Vegas showgirl, decked out in a silver lame gown slit from her high heels almost up to her belly button.
That’s female empowerment, Disney-style! Queen Elsa, an embodiment of irrelevant Scandinavian royalty, gets to wear an outfit coveted by the Stormy Danielses of the world.
“Frozen,” the Broadway musical, opened Thursday at the St. James Theatre, and unfortunately the queen’s tawdry transformation isn’t quite so stone-cold awful on stage.
First off, Elsa is played by a human being, Cassie Levy, and not an animated figure with the impossible proportions of a sex doll. Second, the Vegas showgirl costume on Broadway, designed by Christopher Oram, reveals much less leg than one of Cher’s Oscar-telecast classics. And third, Levy is dignity personified. She doesn’t sashay or strut. Rather, she stands there looking stiff, as if a victim of her character’s own powers.
For true tackiness, we don’t have to wait long, however. Act 2 kicks off with a new song, “Hygge” (don’t ask), in which nearly naked chorus boys and girls emerge from a sauna to whip each other with tree limbs while they frolic in the snow. They fan themselves with leafy twigs the way Sally Rand used to handle bubbles and feathers.
Since this Disney chorus line is supposed to be naked in the snow, Oram has designed full-body flesh-colored stockings, leaving visible only the totally undisguised embarrassment on the choristers’ faces. Remember, those human-size hotdogs in the “Bullets Over Broadway” musical or the dancing elephant buttocks in “Big Fish,” both courtesy of Susan Stroman? “Hygge,” choreographed by Rob Ashford under the otherwise flat direction of Michael Grandage, is far more jaw-plunging.
The other 110 minutes of “Frozen” are not nearly as entertaining as the “Hygge” showstopper. Jennifer Lee’s book never makes clear what happens to Elsa’s power to create a blizzard on demand. Obviously, the queen learns to control her psychokinetism after letting it go full force at the end of Act 1. Since this is her big moment of self-acceptance and empowerment, what happens to her special power? Does she use it again? Or just retire it to the nearest ice box to save on electricity?
The production also gets bogged down in the conflicting story lines of Queen Elsa’s sister, Princess Anna (Patti Murin), who is given not one but two love interests. First in line is Prince Hans (John Riddle in exceptionally strong, beautiful singing voice), who’s really the show’s villain.
He is quickly replaced by the iceman Kristoff (Jelani Alladin), who leads Anna to her sister’s icy retreat. There’s no more story here than in the animated film version, but since this is a Broadway musical, Oscar-winning composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have written a dozen new songs that only take up time rather than enchant or explain or in any way entertain, except for the godawful “Hygge.”
Over the years, the music in Disney’s Broadway musicals has grown less sweepingly romantic. Many songs in “Frozen,” in fact, are downright snarky without a snowflake of genuine wit. Musically, Anderson-Lopez and Lopez rely on a strong percussive element that would not be considered adventurous in any breakfast-food jingle of the last century.
What unthaws “Frozen,” at times, is Murin’s Anna. Where Disney princesses are typically rambunctious in their royal entitlement, Murin presents a delightfully awkward young girl. Alladin matches her loopy physicality, and together they turn their many pratfalls into a funny kind of lovemaking.
The other good news is the physical production. After the cheap touring-show look of “Aladdin,” Disney appears to have splurged on “Frozen.” In addition to Oram’s monumental icescapes, Finn Ross’ video and projection design gives the impression that the St. James stage, proscenium and beyond is freezing before our very eyes. Kudos, too, to Jeremy Chernick’s special effects and Peter Hylenski’s sound design, which, when it isn’t blasting out Levy’s high notes, manages to make us believe that a new ice age is upon us.
Postcript: “Frozen,” preceded by “Escape to Margaritaville” only the week before, is the second Broadway musical to open this month in which the heroine punches out an ex-boyfriend and leaves him sprawled out on the stage floor to much applause from the audience. These physically assaulted male characters should get together to start a new movement, #MenToo.