The national tour of “Frozen,” visiting Hartford right in synch with the biggest blizzard of the year, is irrepressibly cool.
Have no trepidation about watching real-life cartoon characters tread ice for two and a half hours. This beautifully designed, creatively staged musical trades movie magic for theater magic and ups the ante with cutting-edge “How’d they do that?” special effects. You’ll believe that The Bushnell has become an ice cube.
Disney has carefully taken a made-for-the-screen animated adventure that takes place among snow-capped mountains and fairy tale castles and turned it into an old-fashioned musical theater spectacle. Not old-fashioned like “The Sound of Music” or “Camelot,” which have some of the same scenic elements. No, we’re talking turn-of-the-20th century epic theater, the kind that existed before TV or cartoons, the kind that would put a locomotive or Greek gods or an entire town onstage, dazzling audiences just the massive scale of the undertaking.
“Frozen” feels like a grand opera, only warmer and fuzzier. It wants to overwhelm you. It does and has fun doing it.
The show’s creators — scenic and costume designer Christopher Oram, special effects designer Jeremy Chernick, lighting designer Natasha Katz, director Michael Grandage and choreographer Rob Ashford — are so good at creating unbelievable effects that they tease you with how good they are at it. The show opens conventionally, sweetly and softly, with some OK lighting tricks on a nicely painted backdrop, so that you’re lulled into thinking this will be an attractive yet stagebound entertainment. But before too long, the heavens open up. There’s mist and snow and shooting stars.
The main characters — over 15 of them — are clearly defined and immaculately dressed, and most of them get solos and dances and plenty to do. The supporting ensemble — nearly 20 of them — behave as much like a ballet troupe as they do like a chorus line.
Jennifer Lee has revised her movie screenplay to add more laughs and drama. The songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez work beautifully on the stage, and a couple of new ones have even been added.
Everything’s kicked up a level. No weak links. Nothing melts. Yet there’s also nuance. A pair of gloves is an important plot point. So are toys. So are kisses. There is playfulness and romance and playful romance.
As unnecessary as it might seem to have to recap the plot of what is one of the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time, it’s worth reminding those who are bringing young children to “Frozen” that there are some challenging emotional moments. A character who’s thought to be heroic turns out to be evil. A less onerous yet still unlikeable character blithely utters sexist remarks like “Nothing good can come from magic, especially from a woman.” A child nearly dies. A powerful woman isolates herself because she’s afraid she will harm others. There’s a slightly bawdy song and dance involving scantily clad inhabitants of a sauna. Some of these elements resonate differently onstage than they do in an animated movie.
The Bushnell says the production is recommended for ages 6 and up.
On the other hand, the Disney folks know exactly what they’re doing, including nudging the envelope with the almost balletic battles, melodramatic freak-outs and marginally naughty sauna dance. A preshow announcement barks: “We’d like to extend a special welcome to audience members attending their first Broadway show.” Wildness and unpredictability (including countless small changes to the film that allow it to be performed on a stage by live actors) are part of that experience.
So is the fun of seeing familiar roles performed by other performers. The original movie has plenty of Broadway-rooted talent in it, including Idina Menzel, Josh Gadd, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana and Maia Wilson. Here, some of the styles are similar but the interpretations are different.
Lauren Nicole Chapman plays Anna for top comic potential, downplaying her romantic side. This Anna is in the Broadway tradition of Judy Holliday or Carol Channing, the snappy fun-loving gal who gives as good as she gets. There’s a “Once Upon a Mattress” vibe to her. The big “Love is an Open Door” number is as buoyant and perky as something from “Annie Get Your Gun.”
As Elsa, the powerful yet vulnerable monarch who’s doing all the freezing in “Frozen,” Caroline Bowman is appropriately imperious and remote but with a welcome theatrical flair. When she unleashes “Let It Go” at the end of the first act, it sounds very different from Menzel’s iconic rendition in the movie. It’s done as a showstopping show tune with all the theater trappings: The star alone, commanding the stage, inching forward as her voice swells and the song climaxes with as much calculated bravado as “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.”
Whether or not you’re into hearing “Let It Go” one more time, or revisiting the tale of Queen Elsa, who is kind of a King Midas only with ice not gold, and her too-trusting but outspoken and adventuresome sister Anna is kind of beside the point. If your kids are into it, you’re going to be too. But know this: “Frozen” is not a rehash, a retread or a lesser reworking of the movie. It has been rethought for the stage more cleverly than you have any right to expect and even better than most film-to-stage projects short of “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast.” The last big Disney tour to hit The Bushnell, “Aladdin,” had the grandiose tableaux but not the fluid storytelling. “Newsies,” nearly a decade ago now, had the lively spirit but not the glitz or grandeur. “Frozen” has a little of everything, including crowds, class, outstanding effects and even (since it worked so well in “Lion King”) puppets.
Unlike the non-Disney animated-feature-turned-musical “Anastasia,” which removed all signs of cuddly cartoon critters from its stage adaptation, “Frozen” is able to make Olaf the snowman and Sven the reindeer into full-bodied characters that each appear for multiple scenes and regularly upstage their castmates. This is done with fairly traditional puppetry rather than modern animatronics. Sven is a puppeteer (Collin Baja and Dan Flehal at alternate performances) with stilts and levers inside a giant reindeer body that moves with the dexterity of a greyhound. The bouncy round carrot-nosed Olaf is done Japanese Bunraku style, with musical theater veteranJeremy Davis standing behind an Olaf puppet, similarly dressed and enthusiastically voiced. You acclimate to this stage conceit within moments and watch the puppet’s moving mouth rather than Davis’.
“Frozen” is a thoughtful, artful, often astounding adaptation that’s made for the stage. Since the Broadway production had to close earlier than it should have due to the COVID shutdown, the best place to see “Frozen” is in a grand, historic yet technologically state-of-the-art theater like The Bushnell, which has booked it for twice as long a run as most the other first national tours of major musicals it usually gets. With this tour ending Sept. 1, this is likely the last time “Frozen” will visit Connecticut on this scale.
This is top theater artistry on multiple levels. If you’re not into fairy tales, study this extraordinary technical achievement and the joy it brings. “Frozen” is hot.
“Disney’s Frozen: The Hit Broadway Musical” runs through Feb. 18 at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. The remaining performances are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. with an added matinee Feb. 14 at 2 p.m. $34-$188. bushnell.org.