A vista of the pressures faced by Disney Theatrical Productions fills the lobby of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts: Hundreds of bubbly children and unabashed adults dressed as Elsa, Anna, even the rotund sidekick Olaf, the animated snowman peripheral and problematic for a live Broadway incarnation of “Frozen,” but beloved. Deliver the franchise, these cosplaying, premium-ticket punters seem silently to cry. We want Sven the Reindeer! Bring on the ice crystals and the power ballads! “Let-It-Go-O-O-O-Ohhh.”
And a few minutes later, when Caissie Levy belts out that song, soundtrack to a million family vacation drives, that backdrop to parents across the planet going all “Network” and fleeing their responsibilities, when she dares to craft and hold that breath for a millisecond before the “Go” and make Elsa’s icy catharsis her own, half the theater just beats her to the note. For just a second on Wednesday night, Levy’s eyes flashed with the realization that befalls all wise actors playing Disney royalty: The characters are not fully theirs to own. They are a space that has to be communally negotiated.
“Frozen,” the 2013 animated movie very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” has grossed well over a billion dollars, and counting, worldwide. Tickets to Denver’s seven-week tryout of the Broadway musical adaptation (headed to the Great White Way this spring) are commanding hundreds on StubHub, if you can even find them. “Do no harm” wouldn’t just be a forgivable mantra, you could argue it’s a fiduciary duty to Disney shareholders. And no harm is done. Anyone who forecasts falling temperatures at the box office is a fool.
But the theater is not a DVD screen in the back of a Honda Pilot. There are responsibilities to the art form, to give audiences a shove into the deep, the profound, the personal, which is where we all want to go, especially when young, if we weren’t so afeard. This very cautious and emotionally underwhelming show should be — and could be — a whole lot better.
I’ll get to how in a moment. Here’s what Disney has right now.
“Frozen,” the Broadway musical, features (expanded but with all the hits) music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and a book by Jennifer Lee (all three worked on the movie) and is firmly aimed at the family market. There is no profanity, nary a hint of sexual suggestion and few ironic winks for adults. Director Michael Grandage’s production takes no bold leaps into a Julie Taymor-like poker game, nor are there significant narrative shifts. The two leads — Levy as wound-tight Elsa and Patti Murin as her warm-centered sister Anna — are capable manifestations of contrasting polarities and fine performers both. The hunky guys (John Riddle is Hans and Jelani Alladin is Kristoff) are aware their names are not on the marquee, which is sometimes good — since “Frozen” is about sisters, not lovers — and sometimes not, since the story needs their motivations to drive passion and tension. Alladin, in particular, needs to give the lamp a rub. There’s a funny comic turn from Kevin Del Aguila, singing a droll new Act 2 opener called “Hygge,” a smart spoof of how those smug Northern Europeans manage to be so much happier than us, and a surprise in a show that needs more of them.
Although expansive, spectacular and intriguing, the set and costume designs by Christopher Oram are an uneasy aesthetic blend of Tivoli Scandinavian, “Game of Thrones” Nordic and cosmic art inspired by satellite; it is as if Oram wanted to run away with both Ned Stark and Stephen Hawking but there was a bungee cord, always snapping him back to Epcot. The setting for “Let it Go” is very much its own thing: it feels like a performance at the Video Music Awards, and a very effective one it is, too, what with digital ice and 3-D-bergs sprouting from Levy’s mitts as she sings her face off. Few are disappointed. This song is a star of the show in its own right; it needs to reappear in Act 2, for it is so, so loved. And, to Levy’s great credit, so well sung.
Sven the Reindeer — one of the best things in the show — is a gorgeously expressive, human-powered puppet from Michael Curry, played by Andrew Pirozzi. Olaf, played by Greg Hildreth, is a familiar comic marionette much like Zazu in “The Lion King,” and thus weirdly out-of-place here. Visual effects notwithstanding, the Hidden Folk are very talented humans, working hard and anxious to please. Grandage’s transitions aren’t all smooth by any means (he is new to new musicals and you can tell), but you’d expect that at an out-of-town tryout for a tuner of this size.
What’s tougher for the book and score of this piece, and yet the show’s most essential current need, is to deepen and humanize the bond between the sisters. Their inner lives don’t yet reveal themselves enough, nor, just as crucially, does the torrid history of their lifelong relationship. Aren’t we all either nervously stifling our powers and gifts, thanks to our prior traumas, or living terrified of someone (or something) around us who might, any day now, snap and freeze our souls? In my case, it’s both.
Why was “Frozen” such a monster hit? As with the two women of “Wicked,” we’re all either one or the other. The rest is embellishment. Or noise.
The first scenes of the show go awry because young Elsa’s accidental harming of Anna is rushed and superficially staged, thus Elsa’s subsequent, self-imposed isolation, which must be borne in love and fear, lacks emotional logic and intensity. This is the biggest issue of the night. Kids can understand pain if the show has the guts to show it to them. Another problem is that Elsa and Anna never are connected enough to their sketchily drawn parents; the need to pack in all the movie plot gets in the way of what matters most in a family show.
And the several years when the two girls (played as kids by the terrific Mattea Conforti and Brooklyn Nelson) are forced apart yet living in the same palace goes unexplained in the musical, and, very weirdly, unsung about. That needs fixing. Unless we invest in their love, the show has only limited stakes. This production is weak when it comes to zooming out and showing people on a journey. There is no visual sense of Elsa heading into exile. No one ever seems to be traveling far enough. That limits the epic nature of the mythic yarn.
Simply put, “Frozen” currently puts its focus too much on things that matter less in the theater and not enough on what matters most: the power of myth and the bond between two young women who represent us and whose struggles and aspirations mirror our own. The two lead actresses — they’re both well-cast — have forged quite credible characters individually; they have not yet merged as sisters of different stripes, nor does the book or score do what it must to help them. “Frozen” can’t be cold. But to emerge in the sun, we all need to spend a bit more time in the freezer.
Instead of doing no harm, then, the Broadway “Frozen” could push us all toward reconciliation. It’s easy to throw snowballs at such a whopping franchise, and people surely will, and this material has some big issues with which it has to deal to avoid popular disappointment. So stipulated.
But Disney should relax in the knowledge that the show won’t upset its fan base, which doesn’t listen to snooty critics anyway. But this gifted crew has a yet-unrealized responsibility to better ignite our imaginations and make us do a bit more work. And the creative types might ponder this in the months before Broadway: If we all let it go when we needed to let it go, we’d be a whole lot happier on a safer planet for our kids.
“Frozen” plays in the Buell Theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 1 (www.denvercenter.org), then at the St. James Theatre on Broadway from February 2018 (www.frozenthemusical.com).
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.