Theater Review: Touring ‘Frozen’ at PPAC 

Do you wanna build a franchise?


PROVIDENCE – A “tale as old as time” is more than just a lyric from Disney’s animated film “Beauty and the Beast.” The story about a prince who is transformed into a hideous beast as punishment for his selfishness and must gain the love of a selfless woman to recover his humanity was first published as a French fairy tale in 1740.

Sanitize and restructure the story, add music by an EGOT-winning composer (Alan Menken) and lyricist (Tim Rice), and bring in the best animators in the business and you have an Academy Award-winning film.

Take the profits from the 1991 film, add top-notch theater makers to create a Tony Award-winning animated screen-to-live action stage musical that ran on Broadway for over 13 years, and you have yourself a franchise.

This same model has been applied to “Aladdin” (based on a medieval Persian folk tale), “The Little Mermaid” (based on an 1887 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen), “The Lion King” (grounded in Shakespearean themes, if one squints while watching) and, most recently, “Frozen.” This musical is currently on tour and on stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center after flirting with us from larger cities in nearby states over the past few years.

“Frozen’s” source material can be found in 9th century Norse mythology and Danish folklore. The musical won the 2013 Academy Award for “Best Animated Feature Film” and premiered on Broadway in 2018 with screenwriter Jennifer Lee returning to write the script with only minor alterations. The film’s songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez returned to pen a dozen new songs.

As any parent of every youngster knows, “Frozen” tells the story of two princess sisters who become estranged when the older sister, Elsa (Caroline Bowman), discovers that her powers of manipulating ice and snow could be dangerous. A stoic Elsa hides away in the castle from Anna (Lauren Nicole Chapman), her younger, sparkplug of a sister, too afraid of hurting her. But one day Elsa’s powers reveal themselves in an angry outburst. She flees, accidentally unleashing a permanent winter on the land, and takes refuge on a remote snowy mountain, building herself a palace of ice. Anna sets off to find Elsa, melt her heart and thaw the kingdom.

Along the way, she befriends an intrepid ice vendor, Kristoff (Dominic Dorset), his reindeer sidekick, Sven (Collin Baja, on the night of this review), and a sentimental snowman named Olaf (Jeremy Davis). Anna also encounters the happy-go-lucky proprietor (Jack Brewer) of a supply shop and sauna on the mountain route to Elsa’s ice fortress, resulting in “Hygge,” the delightful, show-stopping, Act II-opening number.

It's the older origins of the story that give this tale its underlying complexity and richness. But it’s the Disneyfication of the storytelling – the family-friendly makeover, the big-budgeted innovation (the film that helps fund this staging earned $1.2 billion at the box office) and the realization that the stage production is irrevocably tethered to its animated cinematic source material – that ultimately determines whether the work can win over an audience and become a franchise, like so many shows before it.

The Broadway run of “Frozen” was cut significantly short due to the pandemic, so its fate as a franchise pretty much comes down to how well it is received on the road.

The touring production of “Frozen” does a better job embracing and replicating the cinematic aesthetic of its film than most other Disney screen-to-stage productions, particularly “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan.” This is due to the remarkable merging of kinetic digital imagery (designed by Finn Ross), elaborate lighting (designed by Natasha Katz, with much of it built into set pieces), jaw-dropping special effects (designed by Jeremy Chernick) and dramatic scenic design (Christopher Oram) to create the world of the musical.

And yet, the show only rarely engages in the kind of supersaturated stagecraft found in “Aladdin’s” larger-than-life Vegas-style production numbers. This is actually a good thing since that show’s audiences seemed numbed by the full-frontal assault they’ve just encountered. The opening night audience for “Frozen” seemed thoroughly engaged and never overwhelmed, even during the dramatic, tech-heavy, Act I-ending “Let It Go” production number.

The strong, unconventional, easily accessible women found in Disney’s modern-day musicals – as opposed to the earlier, formulaic Disney princesses Cinderella, Snow White and Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty” – can be found in “Frozen” and facilitate the show’s franchise status potential. But the offering of two princesses – one (Anna) more grounded in fairy tale and the other (Elsa) more grounded in myth – seems to have created some complications in the storytelling for director Michael Grandage. There’s tonal and stylistic discrepancies in the songs and their staging, in Rob Ashford’s choreography for the show’s sizable and gifted ensemble during numbers featuring each sister, and in the shifts from one story to the other that never comfortably coalesce by show’s end. While theatrically interesting, this is very un-Disney, particularly when compared to previous franchise makers.

Still, the audience leaves PPAC’s majestic theater singing the signature song “Let It Go,” seems thoroughly wowed by the abundance of top-notch talent found in this production and is deeply moved by what’s delivered by the remarkable 10-person touring orchestra. The French horn, played by Charlotte O’Connor during the emotional Act II ballad “I Can’t Lose You,” is particularly mesmerizing.

“Frozen” has its flaws, but it is crazy entertaining for both children and adults. And that is what makes a franchise.

BOB ABELMAN is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle and Cleveland Jewish News.