Stage

Ice, Songs and Technical Magic Abound in Frozen at the Hobby

Collin Baja as Sven and F. Michael Haynie as Olaf were crowd pleasers in Disney's Frozen at Broadway at the Hobby.
Collin Baja as Sven and F. Michael Haynie as Olaf were crowd pleasers in Disney's Frozen at Broadway at the Hobby. Photo by Deen van Meer

There are more adorable princesses in ice-blue gowns prancing through the Hobby Center than at a Miss Pre-Teen beauty pageant. Some wear tiaras, most cling to Elsa dolls (sold at the boutique, naturally), and all seem to be at their first Broadway show, which is inspiring. We're in Frozen-land, of course, Disney's theatrical answer to Wicked.

There were little men in the audience, too, but they were more impressed by the comic antics of Sven the reindeer (Collin Baja underneath the fur) and Olaf the snowman (F. Michael Haynie brilliantly manipulating Michael Curry's phenomenal puppet and giving him showstopping voice and performance.) The rest bored them a bit. The little guy in front of me glanced up at the Hobby's celestial ceiling whenever another power ballad was sung. I was tempted, too.

The 2013 computer-animated movie was a juggernaut, spawning the Oscar-winning Best Song, “Let It Go,” which everyone in the audience began to hum as soon as leather-lunged Caroline Bowman, as Elsa, started the intro.

The film earned an astonishing $1.3 billion, the most profitable Disney film ever, until Frozen II (2019) broke the ceiling at $1.4 billion! Can't go wrong with sisterly love and empowerment.

The show was in development for years as the Disney team lost directors, songwriters, set designers, until a suitable script was found. Why it took so long is a mystery, since the original movie is compact and highly entertaining. You'd think it would be the special effects that would baffle the Broadway wizards – all those magical ice formations and snow storms – but the technical problems were easily solved and are quite handsome in execution. There are projections upon projections, a constantly active Aurora Borealis on the upstage scrim, and ice crystals that grow up and over the proscenium whenever Elsa goes on a tirade, loses her temper, and turns Arendelle into an ice hotel on steroids.

Elsa turns her sister into cryogenic hell two times, and that's the hook of the story. The sisters' estrangement begins as children, and they grow up in the palace without knowing each other; with Elsa confined to her frozen room because of her dangerous powers, while younger sister Anna (Lauren Nicole Chapman), wanting to connect, is shunned by her. They grow into young adults stunted by circumstance – and knotty plot development.

If you have children or grandchildren, you are familiar with the story since you've already have seen the movie hundreds of times. The show is a reasonable facsimile, but with added songs – lots of added songs by Oscar and Tony winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Coco, Book of Mormon, Avenue Q). The movie had seven songs, this one has 21, and most of them are filler. They're generic and harmless in a way, sanded smooth by Disney so they don't offend and are easily translatable into any foreign language where the traveling show might play, but they usually stop the show dead and our eyes wander heavenward to that mesmerizing ceiling.

The songs that impress most are the least essential to the story – the haunting opener, “Vuelie” with its ancient Norwegian chant; Kristoff's (understudy Kyle Lamar Mitchell) little ditty to Sven, “Reindeer are Better than People;” goofy Oaken's (Michael Milkanin) “Hygge,” which means fun and warm coziness, as it's set in a sauna with a silly kick line of naked bathers who use birch twigs as fan feathers, like Sally Rand. The power ballads are real power ballads, effectively sung and belted by the pros, but they lose their effectiveness when every opportunity for a song is over-utilized. Must every emotion be bait? Some musicals don't know when to stop being musicals.

The backstage production team is replete with Tony/Oscar winners: author Jennifer Lee; director Michael Grandage, choreographer Rob Ashford, scene and costumer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Natasha Katz, and a host of special effects prestidigitators who work their CGI fingers off. The one that elicited the most gasps of wonder was Elsa's transformation during “Let it Go.” Having run away after turning the palace into ice, she wears her coronation gown in the raging storm. First, her gloves fly off, then her cloak, then in a blast of lighting, she stands there in a glittering white number awash in sparkling spangles. She's arrived in Vegas, what a diva.

If there are any little princesses (or princes) in your life, do them a favor and take them to this show. As a first taste of live theater, Frozen can't be beat. With its message of love and sacrifice as the ultimate healer, its impressive visuals, its kooky sidekicks (a Disney specialty), and that song you can't get out of your head, it's a most welcome tonic after the pandemic. And there's always that ceiling with its shooting stars to stare at whenever they get the heebie-jeebies..

Performances continue through July 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 800-982-2787 or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $35-$85.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover