Film is of course a far more realistic medium than the stage – although there is one profound exception to disprove the rule.
An animated musical film is substantially less realistic than a stage musical.
We give more latitude and forbearance to characters and situations that appear in, shall-we-say, cartoons.
So in 2013 when we first met Anna, the heroine in Disney’s feature film FROZEN, we smiled when she came out with 21st century language and observations. (“Okay, can I just say something crazy?”) Because the face and mouth out of which these quips came weren’t real kept them from seeming odd or unbelievable.
Now on the stage of the St. James Theatre, FROZEN has two genuine, red-blooded actresses playing Anna – one when she’s young, the other when she’s an adult.
And they make for a very different and less satisfying experience.
So Mattea Conforti, who alternates as Young Anna and Patti Murin, who portrays Adult Anna eight times a week, have the unenviable task of making anachronistic dialogue seem real. To exacerbate matters, their director Michael Grandage has directed as if they’re still cartoon characters.
Just because the stage of the St. James was expanded for this Disney product doesn’t mean that the two Annas had to make their performances expand exponentially.
Conforti greatly overstresses the all-wrong gestures – the “Yes!”-type of fist-pump – and Murin gives a goofy smile that manifests itself all night long.
Carol Channing set the record for playing The Most Performances in a Female Role while Yul Brynner holds the record for giving The Most Performances in a Male Role. Patti Murin now sets the record for The Most Smiles Given in Any Performance.
This Anna smiles when she’s happy. She smiles when she’s uncomfortable. She smiles when she doesn’t understand something and wants to pretend that she does. If a stopwatch proved that she smiles 98% of the show, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Murin makes the character too similar to the gawky Princess Winnifred in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS. Never mind that bookwriter Jennifer Lee (who penned the film, too), ensured that Anna, despite her nervousness and uncertainty, has substance, too.
Unlike MATTRESS, FROZEN isn’t just a musical comedy romp. Although it does include moments of low comedy, it has a bigger goal: to impart two important and serious messages: 1) Don’t trust Love at the First Sight and 2) Sister Love is just as valuable as Romantic Love.
Too bad Grandage didn’t see or remember Jessie Mueller’s marvelous Tony-winning performance as Carole King in BEAUTIFUL. There an unsure woman often gave out a little nervous laugh before auditioning her songs. But the subtle way that Mueller played her — and how Marc Bruni directed her — made us genuinely care about her, root for her and become delighted by her eventual success. Grandage has made his Annas too ridiculous for us to take them seriously as heroines. In an age where many shows have corporate tie-ins, you can be sure that Ritalin is not the official drug of FROZEN.
Give Grandage credit, however, for asking for and getting restrained performances from Ayla Schwartz as Young Else and Caissie Levy as her adult counterpart. There’s no overacting here at all. Levy, playing the princess who’ll eventually be promoted isn’t a mere ice-queen; we see she’s haunted and can’t overcome the guilt of what her unfortunate and unwanted magical abilities have wrought. Her mantra is “Conceal it – feel it” and Levy feels it to the core – and can’t conceal from us her internal stress.
All through previews – as well as during intermission and after the performance – the actor getting all the raves was Andrew Pirozzi. Is he handsome Prince Hans? No, that’s John Riddle, who is fine (despite using his mouth for comic effect when he doesn’t need to). Does Pirozzi play Kristoff, the second man to intrigue Anna? No, that’s Jelani Alladin, who matches Levy for honesty, sincerity and accuracy in his performance.
Then, you’re guessing, Pirozzi plays Weselton, sometimes amusing, mostly sinister dignitary whom Lee was content to make a stock character. No again – although Robert Creighton stockpiles all the requirements of comic relief (even while stating Lee’s anti-feminist statements written to make us hate him even more).
Before you guess Olaf, whom we’ll soon discuss, let me divulge that Pirozzi plays Sven, the reindeer. We never see Pirozzi’s face or any other part of him, for he’s encased in a reindeer suit all night long.
As any fan of GYPSY or DOLLY can tell you, four-legged creatures usually have two people working their bulky costume. Pirozzi manages to maneuver the quartet of legs all by himself.
Considering that one man inside a costume can play a quadruped, why didn’t Grandage put a child in a snowman suit to play Olaf? There has to be a kid who’d love climbing into a four-foot white snowman-suit and playing this imperturbably optimistic being. Instead we have Greg Hildreth wearing a white snowsuit, standing behind the inanimate Olaf and working two control bars to bring him to life. Hildreth does his job extraordinarily well, provides an apt voice and enacts a nifty soft-shoe.
Still, after an hour of our becoming accustomed to human beings and one fully-realized faux animal on the stage, seeing a man come on and manipulate a puppet is jarring.
So what about the incessant use of puppets and control rods in THE LION KING and AVENUE Q, you ask. The difference is that both shows establish from Moment One that this is the conceit: humans will manipulate puppets. There’s a famous “ten-minute rule” in musical theater – meaning that you establish the world of your show in the first ten minutes to set the table and tone for the rest of the night. That FROZEN introduces a new concept when Act One is not far from its conclusion is blink-inducing. When Hildreth’s contract runs out, a discussion on whether a child should be engaged and a new costume built should be at least entertained.
That, of course, would mean more money once for the costume and each week for the extra salary. And could it be that Disney wouldn’t be able to afford it? You’re scoffing, because you assume that the company has more money than the combined embezzlements of Presidents Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia/Yugoslavia and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. Perhaps, but don’t expect that your eyes will be impressed by Christopher Oram’s sets and costumes; they look as if they were used for an ancient Shubert operetta. One of Oram’s costumes does get a burst of spontaneous applause, but not necessarily for its threads.
That leaves Natasha Katz to do the yeoman’s work here, because a substantial majority of the special effects are a result of her impressive lighting design. FROZEN may have cost double-digit millions, but it doesn’t make us go “Oooh!” as often as we’d like or expect.
Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s score enhances the fine songs they did for the film with new ones that are on-the-job, do-the-job efficient. As one particular lyric unfolds, it looks as if it will be uncharacteristically anachronistic – not to mention vulgar – before it becomes a most amusing fake-out.
Rob Ashford’s choreography, however, occasionally will throw in a few measures of unexpected dance moves that come from another time and place. Perhaps occasional foray into anachronisms made him feel he had license to throw in boogying that was never seen or done either in the courts or pastures of long-ago. An anachronism even in dance can surprise enough to spur a cheap laugh, which is not the same as getting admiration from your audience for the choreography you’ve created.
Grandage has managed to make a two-and-a-half-hour-plus musical move along well. But he and the authors could have made it shorter if they’d eliminated the scene in which Elsa is made queen.
That brings me to my last question. Next to an on-stage marriage ceremony, is there anything more boring in a musical than a coronation?