“Tell the guards to open up the gates”, it’s finally here… and Frozen is big, bold, beautiful, bombastic…and better than Broadway! A lot better actually. On almost every level, this West End iteration of Disney’s entertainment juggernaut is a considerable improvement on the rather wan spectacle – not magical enough for kids and insufficiently meaty for the grownups – that opened to muted reviews in New York three years ago. At the Broadway performance I saw, the small children sitting behind me started angling to leave as soon as the intermission lights came up following Caissie Levy’s roof-rattling rendering of the belting ‘Let It Go’, before whining loudly throughout the second act about how bored they were.
It’s hard to imagine that being the case in the West End, where Frozen London proves an infinitely more enchanting proposition: more spectacular, more emotionally engaging, funnier, faster paced, it’s a lovely time in the theatre. Most of the original creative team is still attached (Michael Grandage directing, designs by Christopher Oram, Rob Ashford choreography, sound by Peter Hylenski, truly sensational video and puppet design by Finn Ross and Michael Curry respectively) but a lot of the work feels new and fresh. There’s even a couple of superb new numbers that blend seamlessly into Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s eclectic, stirringly memorable score.
You know you’re at a Disney musical when it’s set in a fictional Nordic country but almost everybody speaks with American accents, and Frozen suffers from a similar inconsistency of tone to the one that afflicts The Lion King, whereby cartoony comic shtick (in this case lovable snowman puppet Olaf, forever craving warm hugs and wondering what summer must be like) sits uneasily alongside soaringly beautiful serious stuff (in some of the interior scenes, Oram’s designs, moodily lit by Neil Austin, resemble neo-classical paintings come to life). It’s all massively entertaining but it never fully coalesces in Jennifer Lee’s book, adapted from her own screenplay, which staggers schizophrenically between pratfalls and portentous.
Few will care, when the production values are so extraordinary and the performances are so high octane. Samantha Barks’ ice queen Elsa has presence, elegance and powerful but sweet vocals, carving showstoppers out of the aforementioned ‘Let It Go’ and also ‘Monster’, the cri de cœur second act power ballad. Lee’s script doesn’t require her to do much beyond wander about looking troubled however, and the show’s emotional and comic heavy lifting falls mainly to her younger sister Anna. In this role, Stephanie McKeon is a thoroughly satisfying “tornado with pigtails” and could well turn out to be the production’s break out star. She’s very very funny, completely endearing and with a gorgeous voice. On press night, Sasha Watson-Lobo and Summer Betson respectively played Young Elsa and Young Anna so delightfully it could have been a disappointment when the adult versions of the characters took over, had Barks and McKeon not been so winning.
Although he feels like he belongs in a different musical entirely, Craig Gallivan is tremendous fun as Olaf, and Richard Frame is a comic joy as a conniving potential Royal suitor with a nasty case of short man syndrome. Obioma Ugoala, last seen in the West End as a stunning George Washington in the original London cast of Hamilton, is absolutely wonderful as Kristoff, the feisty, big hearted ice harvester who befriends Anna. Physically imposing but with an off-the-wall wit and warmth, and a beguiling lightness of touch, he commands the stage, with buckets of charm, killer moves, and some serious vocal chops. Sven, his reindeer companion, is an astonishing puppet creation that needs to be seen to be believed: think Joey from War Horse meets Disney cuteness and you’re part of the way there.
The vocal arrangements are exquisite, and magnificently sung by a large cast, and Dave Metzger’s orchestrations sound richer and fuller than we’re generally used to hearing in the West End these days. Personally I could have lived without the excessively kitschy second half opener, ‘Hygge’, a bizarre production number extolling the joys of cosiness in the face of extreme weather conditions, and featuring a chorus line of sauna-loving, nearly naked Ensemble members protecting their modesty with outsize tree branches. In all fairness, the audience went wild for this section, but it reminded me of something that might have scored “nul points” in the Eurovision Song Contest back in the 1980s.
Regardless of my reservations, Frozen is most assuredly a show to see: an epic, dazzling, transporting extravaganza that fits the gorgeously restored “new” Theatre Royal Drury Lane like an exceptionally sumptuous new winter coat. It’ll probably run for years and, what’s more, in this excitingly revamped version, it deserves to. “Do you want to build a snow man?” Yes, yes I do.
Note – this review first appeared on Fairy Powered Productions http://fairypoweredproductions.com/