'Frozen' review - a magical spectacle full of humour and heart
Elsa must feel at home in London, where the weather can turn faster than you can say “let it go.” After a blustery and blue summer (Elsa, is that you?), the sun emerged for the first 30-degree day in months on the press night for Frozen, a winning sign for a bright new Disney musical in the West End.
The legendary ice queen likely feels at home in the completely redone Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which feels positively palatial with vaulted ceilings, detailed frescos, and golden accents. All it takes for a journey to the kingdom of Arendelle is a step inside its doors, or rather, gates.
Add to that an expanded and updated story and additional music and magic, and Frozen seems to have found its ideal home in the West End, where it deserves to stay for many years to come.
The Disney classic won the hearts of children all over the world for its story about two princesses torn apart by tragedy and yearning to reconnect, but the story’s staying power rests with the adults in the room, who are drawn to the powerful message of sisterhood and embracing your true self. Spoiler alert: You don’t need a prince to save the day.
Director Michael Grandage’s production leans more into the gravity of the story, and the stakes feel much higher. Whereas that tone felt somewhat limiting in the Broadway premiere, the musical has more room to breathe here and plays grander.
Although very little in Jennifer Lee’s tight book has been changed from her original screenplay, there’s something about watching two young children separated by a terrible accident who then lose their parents and are forced to live in isolation that hits a little harder onstage, especially after the year we’ve had.
Grandage’s storied background in Shakespeare and opera have helped create a spectacle on a new level — the effects are bigger, the jokes land harder, and the emotions are heightened. Along with choreographer Rob Ashford, Grandage has created a series of tableaus through dance and movement that keep the show pulsating and coursing.
The entire affair is much bigger than its initial Broadway outing, which felt more intimate. While the production featured some gorgeous performances and interesting storytelling, Grandage has scaled up his initial work enormously, with the addition of new set pieces, songs, and of course, magic. (Jeremy Chernick’s special effects and Finn Ross’s projections are pure delight.) You truly feel like you’re on an epic journey.
All of Robert Lopez and Kristen Andersen-Lopez’s songs from the film are here, along with an expanded catalogue that allow characters like Prince Hans (a smarmy Oliver Ormson) and Kristoff (a loveable Obioma Ugoala) a little more back story and development. The new music particularly benefits Elsa, who only really has one number (albeit the biggest one) in the film and spends most of her time off screen in an ice castle. Here, her internal struggle blossoms in two new ballads, one before her coronation and a second act belter. Elsa comes to life in a new way (and now parents have two new songs to add to the Frozen rotation.)
There’s also a new duet for the sisters, where they actually sing together instead of through a closed door about a snowman. Their connection is the central love story here, so it feels imperative to explore that relationship through song. This number, “I Can’t Lose You,” has been added since the show’s Broadway premiere and really levels up the storytelling.
And with Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon, that story is in excellent hands. Barks’s Elsa is serious and scared, and you can see every emotion travel across her face and through her body as she seems to haunt the stage. And of course, she nails the prerequisite for the role by hitting every note and riff in “Let It Go,” not to mention the expert magical costume change into one of designer Christopher Oram’s fairytale fever dream gowns.
McKeon possesses effervescent bubbly, goofball energy, and her Anna revels in physical comedy and one-liners, a fitting foil for Barks’s more grounded Elsa. The yin and yang energy is what makes their familial chemistry sizzle. The other leads round out the company nicely, and Craig Gallivan’s Olaf is a true crowd pleaser and Mikayla Jade and Ashley Birchall make puppetry magic, courtesy of designer Michael Curry, with Sven.
There’s even great dimension to secondary roles like the Duke of Weselton, courtesy of a comedic and lively Richard Frame. At the performance I attended, Asanda Abbie Masike and Tilly-Raye Bayer stole the show as Young Anna and Young Elsa.
The weather certainly blessed London and Frozen’s West End opening, and after what feels like a veritable ice storm of a year (or two), not unlike the “surprise summer blizzard” that overtakes Arendelle, it’s nice to remember that the gates will open, the sun will shine on, and we’ll stand in the light of day again.
Photo credit: Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon in Frozen (Photo by Johan Persson)