‘Frozen’ at Broadway in Chicago: Snow queen, snowman (and reindeer) scooped into a treat
Review: Disney “Frozen,” music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, book by Jennifer Lee. At the Cadillac Palace through Jan. 22. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
As surely as we need a soul-warming thaw in this long pandemic winter, the glittering and heartily human musical fairytale “Frozen” brings that welcome heat to the Cadillac Palace. An all-out production that dazzles the eye even as it connects with emotional truth, this touring show stamps a capital B on Broadway in Chicago – a clever and generous extravaganza bursting with magical effects, buoyed by terrific singing and driven home by nuanced acting.
Spun off the mega-hit Disney animated film, “Frozen” is a parable about the true meaning of love, or if you like, the meaning of true love. If the animated film aims at youngsters and their broad comprehension of love as an expression of comfort and reliability, the musical probes deeper into the mysterious essence of love and the intricate stresses that test it. In that exploration, the stage show traces a convoluted path from darkness, self-doubt and fear to the blazing light of self-realization, and to devotion in its last full measure.
To judge by the crazy popularity of both the movie and the musical’s Broadway run, it seems everyone over the age of 3 must know a version of Disney’s kinder, gentler take on Hans Christian Anderson’s dark tale “The Snow Queen.” Two princesses, Elsa and her younger sister Anna, are childhood pals, the latter a rambunctious gamer who’s constantly pestering Elsa to display the strange power she possesses to invoke snow and ice. One day, the game gets out of hand and Elsa’s potent magic nearly kills Anna, but the little girl is saved and the incident expunged from her memory. But fearing another incident with a worse outcome, Elsa withdraws from Anna completely.
The king and queen perish at sea, and when Elsa turns 21, she is crowned queen. At her coronation, a handsome young prince shows up. Anna falls for him, and they decide instantly to marry. Seeking Elsa’s blessing, they only anger her with their impulsive plan, and in her mounting fury, Elsa inadvertently turns the entire castle to ice — actually, the entire realm. Elsa flees from the castle, horrified by her action and vilified by the people. Anna, setting out to find her, meets up with the handsome young mountain man Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, as well as the talking snowman Olaf. Her new companions agree to help find Elsa. I wouldn’t give away the denouement for a cartful of clean ice. But who doesn’t already know it anyway?
Caroline Bowman stars as the grown Elsa, queen of the realm and guardian of younger sister Anna (Caroline Innerbichler). Bowman and Innferbichler are, well, ice and fire, perfect foils as the majestic possessor of ruinous powers she cannot control and the sibling who’s “not the heir but the spare,” an impulsive young woman still not grown up and still hurting from her older sister’s silence.
The two women also bring first-class voices to the show’s wealth of lyric moments. Innerbichler displays sensibility to go with her rich sound in the duets “Love Is an Open Door” with Anna’s instant object Prince Hans (Austin Colby) and “What Do You Know About Love?” with the sympathetic mountain man Kristoff (Mason Reeves). As for Bowman, her towering delivery of the show’s anthem “Let It Go” brings Act I to a stunning end, as well it might: It would stop the show anyway.
“Frozen” is packed with fetching character performances. Reeves’ hardy Kristoff, whose home is the mountainous snowscapes, is marvelously smitten by the royal Anna but knows the gap between their stations is unbridgeable. Kristoff’s reindeer pal Sven nearly steals the show without uttering a sound. The big, beautifully costumed beast is inhabited by a dancer holding hand stilts for front legs. How demanding is this little frolic? Two dancers split the duty over the length of the run.
A very talkative non-human is Olaf, a snowman who joins Anna and Kristoff in the young woman’s frantic search for Elsa. Compassionate, plain-spoken, not necessarily bright Olaf is a puppet attached to actor F. Michael Haynie, who both animates the lovable snowman and provides his voice. So endearing is artless Olaf that one quickly loses sight of the guy who’s giving him life and speech – until the innocent snowman’s big wishful number in which he pines for the warmth (whatever that is) of summer. With that deceptively formidable number, puppeteer Haynie flashes some vocal chops equal to any in the show.
In a priceless time-out schtick that advances the story not at all but takes hilarity to a snowy peak, mountain shopkeeper Oaken (Michael Milkanin) teaches the search party – and us – the meaning of the local term “hygge” (pronounced hooguh). It’s a little like the German word gemütlich: a mellow signal that all’s right with the world. Getting nuzzled by a fluffy reindeer is hygge; stepping in the processed deposit of said reindeer is “not hygge.” The song-and-dance lesson goes on for quite a spell, including riotous appearances by a conga line from a nearby sauna. And then we’re back to the story.
As a visual delight, the hygge bit only reflects the unstinting rewards of “Frozen” as an eye-popping and often quite amazing treat. The sudden ice transformations are dazzling, and one mid-number, blink-of-an-eye costume change drew the house-wide gasps of a circus crowd. That’s “Frozen” – bounteously lyrical, flamboyantly scenic, gold-standard entertainment. With a heart-warming story. That’s hygge.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreInChicago.com