FIRST IMPRESSIONS: ‘Frozen the Musical’
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - 16/09/2021 - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Here in Arendelle, the winter can be… magical. The sensational hit musical finally lands in London, taking up residence on London’s largest stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

For the first time in forever I’ve seen a show new to the West End that I’ve already seen before – on Broadway, no less! The stage adaptation of the critically acclaimed film Frozen finally opened at Drury Lane’s Theatre Royal on September 8, following an eighteen month delay due to the global panini Pon de Replay pandemic. The show ran on Broadway from March 22 2018 until March 11 2020 when it closed prematurely due to the pandemic. I saw it on Broadway on November 28 2018 and I’ve been dying to get back – the enforced wait has been arduous, but, tonight, it’s finally over.

Sometimes when seeing a show for the first time I don’t want to have half my eyes focussed on a notebook, and – particularly given how long I waited to see it – Frozen was one of those to simply watch and enjoy! As such, it’s a shorter post just from memory this time round, but I’ll definitely be going back to see the show again with my trusty pen and notebook in hand.

(Warning: there are still spoilers ahead!)

All photos © Disney / Johan Persson

I’m going to assume a level of knowledge of the film throughout this piece – they are, after all, the same book – but notably there are plenty of alterations and additions to make the show more appropriate for a two-act stage setting. The show’s prologue is accompanied by the powerful Vuelie / Let the Sun Shine On, introducing Arendelle, the show’s protagonists and many of the musical motifs that will weave throughout the performance.

Young Anna (Ellie Shenker) and Young Elsa (Minaii.K) open the show proper with A Little Bit Of You, a new song prefacing the creation of Olaf the snowman. The staging is big with a combination of physical special effects (SFX) and visual effects (VFX) contributing to the atmosphere. Big, technical effects can be really tricky to get right in a stage setting, often becoming a novelty if they don’t quite function correctly, but there’s clearly been no expense spared for Frozen – the incredible effects really help to bring the production to life and transfer much of the ‘Disney magic’ of the animated film to the stage. Unsurprisingly, the audience was a mixed affair, with a lot of families of all ages within the auditorium. Convincing ‘Disney magic’ could easily be the start of tomorrow’s theatre lovers – and Frozen has nailed it.

Popular favourites from the film, Do You Want to Build a Snowman? and For the First Time in Forever introduce us to more of our protagonists: notably, Anna (Stephanie McKeon), Elsa (Samantha Barks) and Hans (Oliver Ormson). The show has attracted some of the best names in show business, and the quality and talent shines through at every opportunity. I’ll admit, I was nervous about this performance (both from seeing the originators of the roles on Broadway, and in particular from Barks’ Éponine in Les Misérables) but it was completely unfounded – Barks is a natural Elsa and provided a captivating performance, whilst McKeon’s Anna portrayed the emotion, passion and leadership required from what is, arguably, the show’s ‘true’ lead. Ormson’s Hans felt a little too ‘nice’ at times, and almost easily confusable with Weselton (Richard Frame) – both roles came across very slimy, opposed to the conniving and almost-evil nature of Hans, and the slimy but fickle personality of Weselton. Nonetheless, the performances were strong and enjoyable, with Love Is an Open Door being a particularly memorable moment.

One of my favourite new songs for the show, What Do You Know About Love?, really shows off the chemistry between Anna and Kristoff (Obioma Ugoala), although it seemed a little flat compared to the Broadway version. As is to be expected, the show has undergone some cuts, refinements and tweaks since 2018, both to suit a different audience as well as to work in the different theatre space. None of this detracts from the overall enjoyment of the show, and this sequence in particular really makes the most of the available space at the Theatre Royal – the biggest stage in London.

Bringing animated characters to life on stage is always a challenge, particularly for important non-human roles – such as those of Olaf and Sven. The creativity and ingenuity of the creative team – as well as the talent of those playing the roles – has risen to the challenge, with both roles being brought to life and becoming extremely believable. Sven (Ashley Birchall) is an extremely physical role, with the actor spending the entirety of the show crawling around in a specially-constructed costume. It seems an extremely demanding role, but was presented seamlessly and believably. Conversely, Olaf (Craig Gallivan) incorporates a puppet closely resembling the iconic image of the snowman created in the film, with the actor both controlling the puppet as well as speaking/singing the role and mimicking facial expressions and actions as appropriate – some incredible multi-tasking.

In Summer is one of the funnest scenes in the show, with the bright lighting and set contrasting steeply from the more muted and colder tones seen elsewhere in the show. It has all the fun of the film with creative use of props to bring more of that magic to the stage, and the number was well received by the audience. Creative use of different ‘flying’ props on poles kept the scene dynamic, whilst also still being subtle to ensure that the ability of Gallivan, and the ingenuity of the Olaf costume, still took centre stage.

Unsurprisingly, Let It Go is perhaps the biggest number in the show – but it is the staging that really sets it apart from pretty much anything else on the stage at the moment. Barks’ delivery was slick and refined, with the emotion really coming through. Delivery was flawless with her truly making the role her own, but it’s not until the final chorus that you can really appreciate just how much care and thought has gone in to the entire production. Quick changes are a West End staple, but I can’t think of another that’s as ambitious or as slick as that in Let It Go. Barks’ dark dress is whipped away in full view of the audience, mid-belt, to reveal the light blue, sequinned, split-leg maxi dress that is synonymous with the character. Even the most ardent of theatre-goers have puzzled over exactly how the change is achieved, but the results speak for themselves! A friendly steward did mention that it doesn’t always go to plan with a malfunction earlier in the week, but it’s just another reminder of the foibles of live theatre and the skills and professionalism of those on stage.

Yoohoo! It’s Act Two!

Another new song, Hygge, restarts the performance – and it’s another fun, if not a little bizarre, scene that helps to flesh out the musical from the film. Disappointingly (perhaps the only disappointment of the show) Oaken (Jak Skelly) didn’t speak the iconic line “Yoohoo! Big Summer Blowout!”, but nonetheless the whole sequence was big and bold; a great Act Two opening number and further cementing the mix of styles found in the show. Frozen is truly a production for all the family, with comedy and tragedy both featuring throughout – complementing and carrying the story. There’s so much more I could say about Hygge, but I really don’t want to spoil this one too much!

Proving that it’s always worth seeing shows again, particularly if they’ve transferred or have been running for a while, the next big number was brand new for me: I Can’t Lose You. Added only weeks before the closure of the Broadway production, this new song between Anna and Elsa replaces a reprise of First Time in Forever and charts the feelings of both characters as they are reunited on the North Mountain and debate the situation they find themselves in. It’s an enjoyable and catchy number, with both McKeon and Barks complementing each other well and giving a stellar rendition, all supported by the staggering ice palace again created with a combination of SFX and VFX. The song culminates with Anna once again being struck by Elsa’s magic, linking back to the prologue and returning us to the Hidden People.

Fixer Upper is another track that debuted in the film, but its transformation onto the stage is another great success. The ensemble all add to the atmosphere with a highly choreographed and fairly physical routine, led by Bulda (Emily Mae) and Pabbie (Joshua St. Clair – in fact a friend of my theatre companion; you were great Josh!). Young Anna also notably appears as one of the younger Hidden Folk, and it’s great to see the youngsters featuring throughout the whole show. There’s strict regulations about how and when kids can appear in West End productions, and it’s good to see that a show with such broad appeal has taken steps to allow their full cast to appear throughout the performance too. Fixer Upper will always be a track with special significance for me – when I saw it on Broadway I enjoyed a specially-created Fixer Upper cocktail, one of a number created for the show but sadly have not also transferred to the West End! Still, I have a photo of the menu and my souvenir cocktail cup, so maybe I’ll have to create my own at home…

Returning to Elsa’s ice palace and reflecting on Anna’s injury, we have what is still my favourite song from the musical: Monster. It’s the song that captivated me when the soundtrack was first released (yup, broke my own rule… again) and hooked me on the show, and the Broadway rendition (by Caissie Levy) did not disappoint. Big stakes – and, again, I needn’t have worried. Samantha Barks was outstanding, really conveying the emotion and mixed thoughts of the song. Sadly, though, it was let down by some of the sound – this in general was very variable throughout the whole show, often even during the same song, and it was sometimes quite hard to hear the lyrics. The sound in general seemed quite muted, which was a shame in particular for the bigger numbers. Hopefully it’s just part of finessing and adjusting for a full-house audience in such a large venue!

The tail end of the show remains strong as we learn of Hans’ plot to become King, as well as discovering the True Love between Kristoff and Anna. Sadly, this song has been cut from the West End production (perhaps to make space for I Can’t Lose You), with a spoken segment instead covering Anna’s realisation that Hans is not her true love, but Kristoff is. There’s certainly worse cuts that could be made, but it is a shame that it no longer features as it’s one that I particularly enjoyed on Broadway. Instead, we move rapidly into Colder by the Minute, the penultimate song that charts the continued decline of Anna’s heart. It’s another physical, fast-paced song and the whole sequence really captures the show at its very best. Another quick change to ‘unfreeze’ Anna rounds out the show’s surprises and, although it was slightly different to the Broadway version (my own personal ‘unsolved’ mystery as to how it was achieved there – the West End’s is far simpler!), it was nonetheless an impressive effect in step with the rest of Frozen.

We’re treated to one final round of SFX/VFX magic with the reprise of Let It Go, as Elsa uses her now-tamed magic for good, entertaining the townsfolk and celebrating the true love between all. A flurry of snow from the ceiling brings the magic home, and it was warming to see so many younger (and older!) kids in the audience being mesmerised by this. Indeed, the smiles, gasps and ‘Woah!’s throughout the performance definitely point to the effects hitting home, and Frozen certainly succeeds in appealing to everyone – it’s accessible and loyal to the film, whilst also expanding the story and looking more into how Anna and Elsa end up where they are with some more ‘grown-up’ themes.

All-in-all, Frozen is a large, bold and iconic performance that is sure to find a long-lived home in the West End. The Theatre Royal is more than the perfect match for the performance, and it was nice to restore my memories of the theatre to a positive one – the less we say about the last production I saw there, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the better. The theatre itself though is also stunning, with an extensive restoration and refurbishment taking place prior to the opening of Frozen. It’s the very best of the West End in every way – and, as I’ve said for every show I’ve seen this year: it’s great to be back in such a space.

Now, how great would it be if Frozen II also had a stage adaptation…? They’d make a great double-billing…

I’m off to build a snowman.

Frozen is currently playing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and is booking until June 2022. Tickets are on sale now. The show runs for 2 hours and 30 minutes including an interval.