There’s a chill in the air in Memphis emanating from the Orpheum Theater. Disney’s Frozen, based on the hit 2013 film, opened last night and I’ve never seen so many blue dresses in one place before 😉
The film took the world by storm in 2013 and quickly overtook Toy Story 3 as the highest-grossing animated film of all time, grossing a whopping $1.285 billion in global box office. The Frozen trend launched an iconic franchise in 2019 that included an animated short and a sequel. As a former Disney cast member, I too had a unique experience with the franchise. I was working as a photographer at the Disney parks when Frozen took over the world and was tasked with helping the new princess and queen when they decided to visit the Magic Kingdom. I experienced waits of up to five hours to meet the duo and photographed thousands of excited kids and adults ready to meet their new heroines. Though many Disney cast members quickly grew bored listening to “Let It Go” everywhere we went, we couldn’t deny the impact the film and franchise had on people around the world. Last night I saw so many little girls experience their first night of live theater and it made my heart skip a beat. But not only small children were enthusiastic about the musical; I sat next to two young women, only a little younger than me, and listened excitedly as they chatted during the break. Movie fans may be surprised and a little disappointed by some of the changes from the film, but it definitely has the magic that we remember from the film and love.
Frozen follows two royal sisters, one of whom was born with the mysterious powers of ice and snow. After an accident involving her sister, Princess Elsa learns to “hide not feel” and hides her powers from the world. Princess Anna hopes to be closer to her sister after the tragic death of her parents, but Elsa continues to shut out the world. After accidentally revealing her powers at her coronation, Elsa flees the kingdom, leaving Arandelle as a land of eternal winter. With the help of a sturdy ice cream vendor named Kristoff, his trusty reindeer Sven, and a magically speaking snowman named Olaf, Anna sets out to bring her sister home. But Elsa has learned what she can and is reluctant to put others in danger. So what becomes of Arandelle, and ultimately Princess Anna, who is accidentally struck in the heart by Elsa’s ice powers? Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart. The story touches on the emotions with themes of loneliness, sisterly love and self-acceptance.
In 2014, Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, announced that a stage adaptation of Frozen was in development. In 2015, it was confirmed that original songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez would be working on the show and that Jennifer Lee would be writing the book. In May 2016, the musical’s first development lab took place in New York City, starring Betsy Wolfe as Elsa and Patti Murin as Anna. In September 2016, it was announced that Frozen would premiere on Broadway in Spring 2018. The production of the musical cost around 30 million. Previews began in February 2018 at the St James Theater and officially opened on March 22, 2018. The musical delved deeper into the princesses’ backstories and was actually aimed at a more mature audience. After 825 performances, Frozen closed on March 11, 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 14, 2020, Disney announced that Frozen would not be returning to theaters on Broadway. Although the series did pretty well, it didn’t do as well as Aladdin and The Lion King. A US tour of the production kicked off in November 2019 but resumed in September 2021 following the pandemic. The musical was nominated for three Tony Awards in 2018, including Best Musical, but lost to The Band’s Visit.
As I mentioned earlier, the musical has changed quite a bit compared to the film. First of all, it turned out to be a lot darker than people were expecting. In a new song titled “Monster” that Elsa sings, she appears to be contemplating suicide while seeking advice from her dead parents. She ultimately decides that she needs to stay alive to make up for what she did, but you have to admit that’s pretty grim for a Disney show.
Another difference that some people might be disappointed about (my best friend certainly wasn’t happy) is the absence of the trolls. If you remember the funny creatures from the movie, you know they raised Kristoff and later sing “Fixer Upper.” The musical has replaced the trolls with The Hidden Folk, supernatural beings from Scandinavian folklore. This change certainly adds a more mystical touch to the story. Another change related to the Hidden Folk is Elsa’s magical origin. In the sequel Frozen II, it is revealed that Elsa and Anna’s mother is a child of the Northuldra people and the film focuses on Elsa discovering the source of her magical abilities. However, the musical explores this much more and it is interesting that it reveals this much earlier.
The Orpheum stage is no stranger to powerful voices and this show is no exception! Caroline Bowman blows her whistle on “Dangerous to Dream” and captivates the audience because the number we’re all waiting for is “Let It Go”, the closing act of Act One. And it’s worth the wait!
I know “Let It Go” is my favourite, but I have to say my personal favorite of the night was “Monster”. Bowman’s vocal range and emotion make the song a spooky yet beautiful piece. Accompanied by Prince Hans (Will Savarese) and the men, Elsa is dismayed that she might actually be what everyone is calling her: a monster.
Another favorite is ‘Love is an Open Door’, where we see a socially inept Princess Anna ‘falling in love’ with Prince Hans of the South Islands. Will Savarese and Lauren Nicole Chapman hone their comedic timing in this number, and their chemistry makes it an entertaining play. Of course, some of our other favorites from the movie are Reindeer Are Better Than Humans and Summertime. Dominic Dorset portrays a significantly different Kristoff than we’re used to, making him a little more elegant and a little less awkward. I also have to commend Christopher Oram for the costume design, especially Kristoff’s design. His clothes are more colorful than in the film and inspired by the Sami people. Of course, Kristoff is always accompanied by Sven and my god, this doll blew me away. The realistic appearance (especially the eyes) of the beloved reindeer made the performance even more captivating! Our favorite little “duet” (actually a solo, but shhh, we’re not telling Sven we know) “Reindeers Are Better than People” is a fun, if short, ditty and we quickly fall for Kristoff’s charms.
Jeremy Davis has been wowing audiences with Frozen since the pre-Broadway workshop. As a theater student and former Disney cast member, I love watching puppet shows and Olaf is so much fun on stage. Davis rules the stage during the iconic “In Summer,” dancing around the room just like we see Olaf in the film. The “some people are worth melting away” moment is one to remember!
As I mentioned, you won’t see any trolls this time, but the Hidden Folk is quite a sight to behold! Another wonderful ensemble moment (there are so many of those on this show!) these artists transform the space into a mythical sanctuary. My other standout favorite is Pabbie, played by Tyler Jimenez. From his very first appearance, he is the leader of the Hidden People, singing in Norwegian, trying to save Anna from Elsa’s magic.
So many wonderful performances in one show! Norah Ann Nunes is absolutely adorable as a young Anna, Evan Duff plays the Duke of Weselton with just enough comedy and Jack Brewer makes us laugh as the lovable Oaken.
Projection and video design bring the magic to life and I guarantee you will hear squeaks throughout the theater as Elsa’s magic is revealed.
This is a wonderful end to a wonderful season. Don’t miss Frozen, which runs until July 2nd. We may not be able to build snowmen, but Frozen will surely thaw any frozen heart!