_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
at _THEATRE ROYAL.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _23rd OCT.

January 27, 2022
images © Johan Persson.

Ahh, the zeitgeist-clasping, roof-raising, cultural behemoth of ‘Let It Go’. Only just this past week getting knocked off its mighty perch of being the most successful ever Disney number here in the UK, by Encanto‘s equally earworm-y ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’. Right from its avalanche-inducing debut back in 2013, where it could be heard everywhere from garden parties to grime houses, there was fairly immediate chatter about how it would make for a perfect Act I closer, much in the vein of triumphant curtain droppers such as ‘Defying Gravity’, ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ and even Legally Blonde’s soar of feel-good, ‘So Much Better’.

Fast-forward just shy of a decade, a successful, Tony-gobbling Broadway venture and even a pesky pandemic in in the interim, and the Queen of Arendelle’s triumphant belter of self-empowerment has finally arrived on the West End.

And, with the House of Mouse coffers backing it, some truly resplendent audiovisual design, and all framing the powerhouse pipes of growing stage legend Samantha Barks, London welcomes a truly jaw-dropping set piece that easily slots in amongst the greatest moments of musical theatre, perhaps ever.

It really is that good.

Disney have form here, though; see the big, colourful magic they wrought in turning Aladdin’s ‘Friend Like Me’ into a tour-de-force explosion of genre-bending, vaudeville-infused brilliance, a trick similarly (and understandably) pulled for ‘Be Our Guest’ in the new touring production of Beauty and the Beast. They certainly don’t shy away from doubling down on their big numbers.

However, a single song and set piece do not a consistent, quality musical necessarily make.

“Disney certainly don’t shy away from doubling down on their big numbers.”

Thankfully, anyone going to see Frozen out of love for its film predecessor (presumably the vast majority) will be thrilled to see all the major beats, moments and numbers included here, all glistening in that Disney sheen of quality and scale.

It’s immensely crowd-pleasing and, barring some slightly darker (yet welcome) moments and a curiously-judged but well received Act II opener that features very mild ‘nudity’ (spoiler: everyone’s in skin suits), is probably the go-to recommendation for a family visit to the West End.

Frozen London’s principal ‘Anna’, Stephanie McKeon (pictured above) was covered by ensemble member Sarah O’Connor in the performance reviewed. At a time in the industry where understudies, covers, ensemble and swing are often saving the day during COVID times, O’Connor gave a memorable, sincere turn in a demanding role.

Kids and adults alike will adore Craig Gallivan’s wonderful duality of puppetry and performance in the loveable Olaf, a comedic turn that somehow manages to both uncannily channel the nature and spirit of the film’s animated snowman without resorting to base mimicry of Josh Gad. Similarly splendid is the craftsmanship, design and performance (courtesy of Ashley Birchall & Mikayla Jade) put into reindeer Sven, here decidedly less cartoony, but more in the spirit of, say, War Horse’s ‘Joey’ is an indelible, beautiful stage presence that elicits plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’.

As mentioned, it is one glorious looking production to bathe in. Christopher Oram, Neil Austin and Finn Ross bring an unparalleled sense of production value and scale to the Theatre Royal’s boards, from the breathtaking majesty of Elsa’s iconic transformation sequence, to a dollying bridge (that dwarfs even Les Mis’ iconic barricades) featuring pitfalls and slides aplenty, and a perpetual sense of heightened fantasy and magic, abetted tremendously by Jeremy Chernick and team’s stellar effects work. Even techie elements, such as a blisteringly high frame rate for Ross’ video and projection work in simulating a frustrated Elsa’s climactic blizzard, show a standard of attainment few shows aim for, let alone reach.

Good luck finding a more dazzling display of wonderment in the West End (or beyond).

Frozen London’s principal ‘Anna’, Stephanie McKeon (pictured above) was covered by ensemble member Sarah O’Connor in the performance reviewed. At a time in the industry where understudies, covers, ensemble and swing are often saving the day during COVID times, O’Connor gave a memorable, sincere turn in a demanding role.

Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ much-played, scarcely-bettered music is as infectious as ever, and the transition to the stage has brought with it some very welcome new numbers that are (mostly) just as good. Oliver Ormson’s beautifully-sung Hans gets a much-needed injection of character and development with his cunningly utilised ‘Hans of the Southern Isles’, whilst Elsa – somewhat passive during a good chunk of the films second reel – gets a real belter of an Act II soul-searcher in new favourite ‘Monster’, which Barks, again, knocks out of the park with real gusto.

Joining her, Obioma Ugoala is a warm, hearty presence as perennial good guy Kristoff, whilst Ormson could croon the phone book and it would likely be divine. In a smaller yet impactful turn, Richard Frame is suitably weaselly (sorry, Wesel-y) and serves up a lot of the pre-Olaf humour with his snidely Duke.

“Good luck finding a more dazzling display of wonderment in the West End (or beyond).”

Particular plaudits go, though, to ensemble member Sarah O’Connor, who stepped up to give a beautiful turn as co-lead Anna, capably carrying the weight of this enormous show on her charismatic shoulders, giving a wonderfully charismatic, quirky turn, and comfortably going toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Barks and Ormson to give just as accomplished and winning a turn. Arguably the night’s MVP.

Less successful is aforementioned Act II opener, ’Hygge’, which, whilst winningly performed (Matt Gillett also stepping in and doing a fine, funny job at the performance reviewed) and getting plenty of laughs as one of the show’s more upbeat and irreverent moments, feels tonally a little jarring, not to mention more than a trifle perfunctory, here. Far better would its vim and spectacle have been leant to the stronger and more character-driven ‘Fixer Upper’, which follows shortly after. Did anyone really think the one thing the original Frozen was missing was a musical interlude from sauna and shop owner Oaken? His now trademark ‘yoo hoo!’ – thankfully replicated here – remains far simpler and more iconic.

That isn’t to say deviation from the source wouldn’t be welcome. Au contraire; if anything, there’s an argument to be made that compared to say, Mary Poppins or The Lion King as other stage adaptations of Disney hits, Frozen plays it a little too safe. The other mentioned properties really lean into the medium of theatre to craft their stage outings as highly distinct and separate entities from their filmic counterparts, whilst keeping the core DNA intact. Frozen, on the other hand, regularly plays out and feels akin to an extremely big-budget – and admittedly gorgeously executed – transfer of some of its Disney park show cousins.

Much like Aladdin before it, there’s a hesitancy to Frozen to stray too far from the established aesthetic and template, or really play around with the uniqueness of the stage experience which, whilst understandable given how iconic Elsa and friends have become in the cultural consciousness, still feels like a slightly missed opportunity. Where it does offer hints at this – such as its interpretation of the film’s ‘troll’ characters here as more tribal, native human-esque types, or the aforementioned de-tooning of Sven, it works beautifully, and offers glimpses of something more distinctive still.

But again, nobody at Disney, or indeed in the audience, are likely to be losing any sleep that Elsa looks and sounds like, well, Elsa. Heck, they even manage to squeeze in a couple of nods and narrative nudges to the sequel.

Having recently extended its run to October at the earliest, there’s little indicator that Frozen on stage won’t have the same triumphant and celebrated run as its film forebear had in the Box Office, and its seminal hit had on the airwaves.

And, in fairness, it’s deserved. It’s a sweeping, glorious spectacle of a show, beautifully performed, and at times staggeringly well-realised. It’s a ‘safe’ bet in the sense that audiences will get exactly what they want and expect going in. Yes, it ends up landing quite heavily on the more derivative side of Disney’s stage adaptations, and the glimpses of something more unique and distinct peppered throughout wink at some potential missed opportunities, but when families of all ages are leaving infectiously overjoyed, satisfied and fulfilled, I guess I just need to let it go.

Elsa and friends stomp their icy stamp upon the West End in grand, frequently jaw-dropping style. A little safe and (understandably) derivative, it’s more a warm, familiar hug of a show than a groundbreaking reworking. Likely, audiences would have it no other way.


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