Now I personally don’t think Frozen is the best Disney film out there, with a number of animated features – including ones with other Disney Princesses – being better. But it broke away from the usual Disney Princess film mould in several ways that are why it is deservedly considered such a unique and different direction for Disney.
Now the phenomenon that has captured the hearts of a whole new generation of young Disney fans across the world has been adapted into a musical, swirling in the flurry of joy from the big screen to the stage. The West End production of the show which originated on Broadway in 2017 finally opened at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in late summer. Musical veteran Samantha Barks who has been in the West End production of Les Misérables (and the subsequent film version) as well as global productions and tours of Cabaret, Chicago, Amélie, and Pretty Woman: The Musical, takes on the coveted role of Elsa. Meanwhile, still relative newbie Stephanie McKeon who has previously been in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in the West End, stars as Anna and is sure to have a very promising future ahead of her after this.
Unfortunately, the show I saw did not star Samantha Barks that night but her understudy Danielle Fiamanya. However, while it was disappointing not to see her perform (check her Instagram for videos of her in the show and singing the songs), Danielle did a fantastic job of stepping into her shoes. With a distinctly richer, warmer and soul-inflected voice, Danielle tackled the role with aplomb showing that’s why understudies are not to be underestimated, especially when they are relatively unknown compared to the stars who play the role the rest of the time.
What’s interesting about the stage show productions of Frozen is the diverse casting of many of the main characters. Across the different productions so far there have been several Black, Hispanic, Asian and mixed race actors and actresses who have taken on the roles of Elsa, Anna, Kristoff (played brilliantly by Obioma Ugoala in London), and the King and Queen of Arendelle. This may have come off the back of criticism aimed at Disney for its lack of diversity in its films, with very few Disney Princesses being of colour (though to be fair, Frozen is based on The Snow Queen story and set in a Scandinavian-inspired world where there are more White people). What’s great is, no-one appears to be complaining (though I bet they would if Princess Jasmine was suddenly only portrayed by White or non-Asian/Middle Eastern actresses, for example) or batting an eyelid – they’re seeing the show for what it is as a whole and admiring the talent of the cast rather than their skin colour.
However, it must be noted that it was still rather strange to see a young White Elsa suddenly “become” Black as an adult. I was very surprised not to hear the innocently curious questions of observant children around me wonder aloud why Elsa was now Black. Would the same thoughts or same nonplus reaction from the audience have occurred if it was a young Black Elsa who then stepped out in the next scene portrayed by Samantha Barks? Having looked through cast pictures, there is a young Black actress who sometimes takes on the role of young Elsa, and another who plays young Anna (though no Black adult Anna). Adding to the multiracial Arendelle royal family was Filipino Jacqui Sanchez and Kerry Spark (his bio on Global Artists lists his appearance – of what he can play I presume – as “Filipino/Malay/Thai, Latin American, Mediterranean”) as Queen Induna and King Agnarr, respectively. Normally, Black actor Gabriel Mokake would play the King.
It is certainly not unusual on the stage to see actors of different ethnicities play roles originated by White actors, allowing audiences to see different interpretations of roles they are familiar with, and the majority of the time leaving impressed by them. This is common in shows where the characters’ ethnicities are not important and not necessarily a part of who they are. And with Frozen in particular one could argue that children should be taught from a young age about diversity – that their favourite Disney characters don’t have to look as they do in the film – and about multi-dimensional family structures. Though should non-White or mixed race children not be able to see accurate portrayals of families like theirs on stage (and elsewhere)? Adding in people of colour to play certain roles should not just be a box to tick but be thaw-t out (teehee!) and utilised, even if it means changing cast rosters around so that transitions and the realities being portrayed on stage are more relatable and understandable rather than random and done for the sake of showing they give diversity a quick thought when casting.
But back to the show itself. Of course, it follows the same storyline as the film, with a few minor changes and nearly all the same songs from it included. There are also about a dozen new songs penned by husband a wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. The new songs, while complementing the show and its storyline, are more filler. They are fun, well written and sung, and one of them totally bizarre (Hygge), but are mostly forgotten once you’ve left the theatre. Had they been in the original film would they have been as catchy and memorable? Perhaps, though there are always lesser-known or lesser-liked songs in musical films. One of the best new songs was I Can’t Lose You, a climactic duet between Elsa and Anna (which really highlights the contrast between the actresses’ two distinct voices and yet they still blend together well) before Elsa freezes her heart. However, this in turn cuts out the reprise of For the First Time in Forever, often a fan favourite as it is of course a pivotal moment in the film.
Visually however, Frozen is a dazzling spectacle. Elsa’s powers are brought to life as creatively as they can (and as creatively as Olaf is) with a light show that could compete with Blackpool Illuminations. Flashes of icy blue, aqua green and bright white shoot and sweep across and around the entire stage from top to bottom and front to back. The optical illusions of intricate snowflake projections are mesmerising as Elsa unleashes her magic, and the sets and props of glaciers, icicles, Elsa’s ice palace and an extremely long bridge that makes you wonder where they store that backstage, are exactly what you’d expect from Disney – extravagant and no fine detail omitted.
Elsa’s costumes sparkle with blinding beauty as she glides around the stage and the idea of using ensemble cast members dressed in thick white to resemble the snowstorm is genius, but the best costume awards must be given to Sven (think pantomime horse, but a reindeer that can express emotions through its head and leg movements and a strangely accurate costume) and Olaf. Craig Gallivan of Footballers’ Wives fame acts as Olaf’s puppeteer, strolling around the stage with Olaf in front of him, reminiscent of animal puppet techniques famously used in The Lion King musical. A standout character in the films for his obvious lovable, heartwarming personality, he received the most excited and loudest reception from the audience and you’re torn between being enchanted watching Gallivan act, move, talk and sing and following “Olaf” do the same.
Frozen the Musical is by snow means (hehe!) a production that rivals the brilliance of The Lion King, which certainly competes heavily with the original animated film in terms of awe and ingenuity. However, it does supplement the film and the franchise that branches from it that will keep fans of the film happy as they continue to be able to relive what they love about it in another way. A perfect show to introduce children to the world of musical theatre before they hopefully grow up to watch more iconic stage shows they might also like, Frozen knows its audience and satisfies them.