‘Frozen’: Did new musical version of Oscar-winning film melt hearts of Broadway critics?

Just a day after a spring Nor’easter blew through New York City, a much more permanent ice storm began to brew on Broadway as “Frozen,” the high-profile stage adaptation of Disney’s billion-dollar grossing animated film, opened at the St. James Theatre on March 22. Following in the screen-to-stage footsteps of other Disney animated movies including “Beauty and the Beast” (1994), “The Lion King” (1997), “Tarzan” (2006), “The Little Mermaid” (2008) and “Aladdin” (2014), “Frozen” hews very closely to the plot of its silver screen predecessor. Directed by Tony Award-winner Michael Grandage (“Red”), Caissie Levy and Patti Murin take on the roles of princesses and sisters Elsa and Anna made famous by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, respectively.

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Despite the affinity for the animated film, theatre critics responded to the Broadway mounting of “Frozen” less warmly in their reviews. On the positive side, Sara Holdren (Vulture) cheers “Frozen” as a “theatrical extravaganza” featuring “earnest exuberance, a host of solid, sunny performances, and a surfeit of stunning visuals.” Of those performances, Holdren most lauds Caissie Levy as “regal” with “an enormously strong, richly emotional voice” and the “adorable” Patti Murin.  She also nods to the “lush Scandinavian paradise” that director Grandage “brought to sumptuous life,” but finds fault with the often “underwhelming” projections and the new songs, which she deems “a bit generic.” Marilyn Stasio (Variety) shares similarly positive feedback for the “warmly human cast,” particularly the “stunning” Levy and “darling” Murin, and the “highly stylized and very theatrical” sets, though she quibbles that they are not “transporting.”

Others found much more to critique in the wildly-anticipated musical. Jesse Green (New York Times), for example, diagnoses the show as “sometimes rousing, often dull, alternative dopey and anguished,” descending from its “masterly first 20 minutes” into “confusion.” Though Green appreciates the sets, which are “very beautiful to look at,” as well as the performances from Levy and Murin in particular, he walks away underwhelmed with the new songs, which “feel over-tailored to their moments” and “mismatched,” and the special effects, which were not “especially effective.” Harsher still, Johnny Oleksinski (New York Post) gives “Frozen” only two out of four stars, deeming it “not a very good show.” Despite his complaints that it is “visually drab, mechanical and often boring,” he likes Levy and Murin who “manage to frequently rise above the production’s avalanche of limitations,” even going so far as to declare that Levy sings Elsa’s trademark song, “Let It Go,” “better than Menzel.”

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In spite of the rather icy reception “Frozen” received from critics, the Tony nominating committee will most likely embrace the production more warmly.  In a theatre season with relatively few new show realistically jockeying for a Best Musical nomination, “Frozen” will have no difficulty securing a spot in the race for the top award.  Grandage might similarly benefit and secure one of the five Best Director nominations, though the two-time Tony winner could conceivably miss out due to his competitors from both original musicals and revivals.

Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the husband-and-wife songwriting team who wrote the songs for the “Frozen” film and won an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Let It Go” as a result, penned a batch of new tunes for this stage adaptation. They’ve added enough new material to the existing songs from the film to allow the whole score eligible for Tony consideration, which will indubitably land the duo their first-ever Tony nomination as a pair. Robert Lopez, a twice-over EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner, has had past success at the Tonys with three trophies to his credit, including two for “The Book of Mormon” in 2011 (Best Score and Best Book) and one for “Avenue Q” (2004). Earlier this month, Robert and Kristen took home their second Oscar for song “Remember Me” from animated movie “Coco.”

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Of the ensemble, Levy and Murin have the best chances of reaping Tony nominations as both received many kudos from critics. If only one lands a nom, it will be hard to determine which prevails over the other. Although Levy gets to perform the now-beloved, show-stopping “Let It Go,” which serves as the climax of the first act of the musical, she largely disappears as Elsa isolates herself from society. Murin, on the other hand, spends much more time on stage and often carries the show as the lovable Anna. Fellow cast members John Riddle (Hans), Jelani Alladin (Kristoff), Andrew Pirozzi (Sven), and Greg Hildreth (Olaf) will have a much harder time breaking through with nominating committee members, though Hildreth most likely stands the best chance for his turn puppeteering and performing as the fan-favorite snowman sidekick Olaf.

Grandage’s creative team boasts an embarrassment of Tony-winning designers. Christopher Oram contributed both the scenic and costume design for the production. In the past, Oram has landed five Tony nominations, taking home one for his costumes for “Wolf Hall Parts One and Two” (2015) and one for his scenic design for “Red” (2010). Natasha Katz, who designed the lighting for “Frozen,” has earned 14 Tony nominations during her illustrious career with six total victories (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” 2016; “An American in Paris,” 2015; “The Glass Menagerie,” 2014; “Once,” 2012; “The Coast of Utopia,” 2007; “Aida,” 2000). Both of these designers have a probable chance of reaping Tony bids come May.

Book writer Jennifer Lee and choreographer Rob Ashford round out the majority of the creative team. Lee, who wrote the screenplay for “Frozen,” co-directed the film, and took home an Oscar when it won Best Animated Feature, wrote a new book for the musical and could, in turn, land a Best Book nomination at the Tonys. Ashford, who has eight total Tony nominations and one win for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002) to his credit, stands an equally strong chance at earning a Tony bid.

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