Disney’s Frozen is a Triumphant Return of Broadway to Hennepin Avenues Orpheum Theatre

Caroline Bowman (Elsa) and Caroline Innerbichler (Anna) Photo by Deen van Meer

I was lucky enough to attend opening night of the first Broadway on Hennepin production since the theatre shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What an audience to experience a show with. The energy in the auditorium was electric as evidenced by the cheers, whoops, and hollars that greeted the onstage welcoming of the audience back into the Orpheum. We all knew we were in for a treat and it felt like we were all in it together. Disney’s Frozen did not disappoint. A spectacular production that brings the beloved animated film to life before our very eyes. Featuring Production Design and Special Effects work that make the magic of the story seem real. A refreshingly diverse cast that grounded the fantasy in a way that made this storybook world relatable. The film touched a generation of kids the way The Little Mermaid did 25 years before it, along with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Pinocchio did before that. It has the opportunity to create that same spark of fascination in this generation for what live theatre can do. The five year old, for whom Frozen was their first film in the theatre, is now the perfect age for it to be the first large scale theatrical experience. What a perfect way to nurture a new theatre audience.

I grew up at a time when there might be one or two childrens shows that would tour around the country reenacting a TV show or film live. These usually featured performers in big costumes, lip synching to prerecorded audio track with neat special effects, but not frequently on ice skates. In 1994, Disney decided to change that. With a Best Picture Academy Award nomination for Beauty and the Beast they made the decision to try and transform that beloved film into a legitimate Broadway musical; not just a cash grab outing for parents to get the kids out of the house between animated film releases. That show ran for 13 years on Broadway. Their next outing The Lion King won six Tony awards. We are a long way from Disney on Ice here folks. Frozen continues that tradition and while it is not the risk taker that Beauty and the Beast was in 1994, or the the groundbreaking creative endeavor of The Lion King in 1998, it stands as a fully realized Broadway Musical far removed from civic centers filled with light up wands and cones of cotton candy.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years, you know the plot of Frozen. The production doesn’t stray from the film. The key to these adaptations is not the changes you make but the talent you gather to realize the source in a new medium. We know Disney has the resources and the “emagineers” to create a spectacular production, and I will touch on that as well. The most important aspect of any successful show are the actors, dancers, and puppeteers on stage. Frozen’s cast is top notch from top to bottom. The two leads Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Twin Cities own Caroline Innerbichler as Anna, are perfectly cast as the two princesses. Bowman is up to the challenge of what is undoubtedly the most complex role. An arc that moves from a socially distant, frightened, and hesitant Princess, to a self-banished but newly self-realized Ice Queen, back to something more reflective of the more carefree little girl that the show opens on. We feel the reluctant determination of Elsa to keep Anna distant in order to protect her. We also feel her power and authority when her powers are unshackled and she is allowed to be who she is inside, the joy that comes and the confidence of not having to hide who she is any longer. A powerful singing voice that commands the stage in her rendition of “Let It Go” at the end of Act 1. Innerbichler as Anna is full of impulsivity and humor. She plays Anna as a girl bursting to be out exploring the world interacting with everything but who has been stuck inside, separated from all the things that make life so enriching. Sound familiar? She is wide eyed, determined, and plays all of the humor with the pitch perfect timing. Speaking of pitch, she has a beautiful singing voice that skillfully embodies the emotions of the character, the wonder, excitement, and yes, humor. I cannot wrap up my reflections on the two princesses without acknowledging the endearing work of the children playing Young Anna, Olivia Jones and Young Elsa, Natalia Artigas. I’m always amazed at the talent of these young performers, the confidence, acting, and the singing. You know you are watching talented kids when you forget you are watching kids but see the characters, both of these young women accomplished that feat from the moment they took the stage.

The cast is rounded out by Austin Colby as Hans. He perfectly conveys the dual nature of the role, making his characters big change later in the show feel fresh despite the familiarty most will have with the story. He sells both sides of the character brilliantly. Mason Reeves as Kristoff bringing to the stage a looseness and energy that feels very welcome; along with, the camaraderie of Innerbichler’s Anna and his Reindeer best friend Sven feels playful and natural. Which brings us to two of the cleverest and unfortunately under utilized performances. First off Sven, the Reindeer performed by Collin Baja, is an amazing physical performance. It’s more than a man in a horse costume, there is a height and structure to the costume that defies immediate understanding of its structure. There are certainly extensions on the limbs of the animal giving it a quality that completely removes it from reminding one of a human on all fours. The role is alternated nightly I would assume due to the sheer physical stamina the role demands. The movement of Baja in the role is an art unto itself and the costume design with eyes that blink is brilliant. I’m not sure who to credit Sven’s design to, Christopher Oram the Scenic and Costume Designer, or Michael Curry the Puppet Designer. I do know that we can credit Michael Curry for the Olaf the snowman puppet, which is the other standout non-human role of Frozen. F. Michael Haynie is Olaf and as such, is required to voice the character as well as perform the movements of the puppet that represents the character. This is not a new technique for bringing to life such a character but it is the most effective and I think the most rewarding as well. Could Disney have created some sort of robotic Olaf to be used on stage? Yes, we actually get a hint briefly of that idea, but they don’t go that route and I think that illustrates an important choice. By going the puppet route they are inviting young audience members to see a creative answer to how to bring something imaginary to life. There are enough “Wow” moments in the show created by Special Effects Designer Jeremy Chernick, where young people will be amazed and wonder “how did they do that?”. It’s nice to show them as well something they can understand that is also very effective. That, and it allows us the pleasure of Haynie’s performance which is one of inspired comic relief and one of the joys of this show.

Collin Baja (Sven) and F. Michael Haynie (Olaf) Photo by Deen van Meer

Disney’s Frozen adaptation features a book by Jennifer Lee from her screenplay for the animated film. In addition to their original songs from the film Kristen anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have written around a dozen new songs for the Musical. Unfortunately, none of the new songs really capture our imagination like the originals do. The two exceptions that do add to the show are “A Little Bit You” performed by the Young Anna and Young Elsa, and “Hygge” which is a fun little showstopper that doesn’t add much to the story but definitely adds some laughs. The show itself will delight children of all ages, whether they are just getting into Frozen or if they were fans when they were younger. It also plays well to adults, there is much talent and creativity on display, amazing effects, and spectacle. If you enjoy theatre, you’re going to have a great time with Frozen!

Disney’s Frozen is part of the Bank of America Broadway on Hennepin Season from the Hennepin Theatre Trust. The production runs through October 20th at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis for more information and to buy tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/frozen-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2021/