Uneven "Frozen - Live at the Hyperion" is Still a Hitby Todd Pickering, contributing writer
Frozen–Live at the Hyperion opened at Disney California Adventure at the end of May, and after a strong summer showing it is time to critique this ambitious show. In Aristotle's Poetics, he claims that the least important part of a production is "spectacle." If a production has to rely on special effects and dazzling costumes, then it is a disservice to the play and the audience. However, modern Disney theme park audiences probably don't walk through the doors of the Hyperion Theater with this in mind, and after this summer it is fair to say that Disney has a bona fide hit on their hands.
Plagued with many technical difficulties and lugubrious pacing in its premiere, it appears that the cast and crew are getting a handle on the pacing but the technical difficulties still continue. Most people get one crack at a show on their visits but this reviewer has seen the show four times and has never experienced any technical problems so cannot personally address those issues.
Before jumping into a critique, it's prudent to cover some logistics that you may want to know before attending Frozen–Live at the Hyperion. Keep in mind that the tickets are given out for the show in order of the earliest performance and start with orchestra seating, then mezzanine, and finally balcony before it starts over with the next show starting with the orchestra seating again until all four shows are sold out.
In Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix's interview with Technical Director Mitch Atkins, he states that the mezzanine is the best seat for viewing. I saw the show twice from the balcony and twice from the orchestra. The back of the orchestra was far superior to the first few rows. You cannot get the full effect of one of the numbers if you are in the first ten rows. If you are lucky enough to be in the orchestra, sit further back for sure.
Another tip, if you are not sure if your child has the patience for this show it is a great idea to take small children to see Tangled or Beauty and the Beast over at the Royal Theatre in Fantasyland at Disneyland first. Those shows are 20 minutes long with a lot of audience participation, and children can see the princesses up close. If they can't sit through those shows, they will likely not be able to sit through the whole Frozen–Live at the Hyperion show; Frozen involves a lot of waiting for tickets, followed by waiting to get in, then waiting for the show to start, and finally waiting for Olaf to appear. It may be too much waiting for small children, so a trip to meet Anna and Elsa over at the Disney Animation Building might be a better option.
Upon entering the Hyperion Theater you are greeted with an open stage and a giant projection of Arendelle that expands out into the audience, giving you a feeling that you are in a snow globe. This 3D effect transport the audience into the mountains, gives Elsa her magic, and produces nail-biting chase scenes. Unfortunately the effect also makes one compare the stage show to the beloved movie.
The lowering and sliding of multiple doors as real set pieces to create the interior of the Royal Palace becomes clunky and tedious in comparison, especially when only one door is used in a given scene. It appears that the "open door" theme was the inspiration for this cumbersome scenic design. Sometimes there are quick and efficient scene changes, but other times pieces are brought in just to be taken out almost immediately. The scenic design is mostly successful, but at times works against the story.
The most effective staging, acting, and direction in the entire show comes in the exposition song "Do you Want to Build a Snowman?" The oversized doors work magic in making the actors that play Young Anna and Young Elsa truly look like tiny little girls. During the later scenes when the girls grow up and are played by taller actors, the doors remain giant and it isn't as effective as at the beginning. The stage has a built in turntable so that when tragedy strikes, the door separating the sisters may revolve to focus on one or remain so both of the girls are visible. It is works as a metaphor and as a literal closed door. The careful, gentle direction of the separation that pains the sisters is sure to leave a lump in your throat.
Unfortunately the staging goes down hill from there. In "For the First Time in Forever," the frenetic staging of the servants preparing the castle for guests soon to arrive for Elsa's coronation is a great missed opportunity for a dance number. Instead we get a prop-filled break with near misses, sweeping maids, and plate balancing valets. The staging is as pedantic as a community theatre production and the slapstick isn't really fully developed. Since the director opted for no dancing, this number could have been half of the length.
The show's only dance number comes in "Love is an Open Door," which is adapted into a dreamlike sequence. Hans and Elsa seem to be the only ones in the world as the chorus dances and singes to their courting song from the film. While it is something fun to look at, the chorus is a bit distracting for the two actors. It is a great attempt at incorporating the chorus, and ultimately works decently in moving the plot along while unifying the character of the chorus through a song.
The songs have come quickly and swiftly, and the story is moving along at a decent pace at this point. The kids are starting to get antsy, but just in time to placate them comes Elsa with the seminal hit, "Let it Go," and it does not disappoint. Out of the four performances attended, I am pretty sure that I saw at least three different actors. The cast is at least five deep for every main role, and let me tell you that there was not a bad performance from any of the leads. "Let it Go" is a very difficult song to sing, let alone sing live. The skill level and Disney casting should be applauded for finding such amazing performers. The spectacle is pretty over the top, but ultimately works well at unifying this show stopper number.
Even with the quality of the actors, Disney costuming may be the ultimate star of this show. If you are lucky enough to sit on the aisle you can see first hand that every last piece of clothing is full of exquisite workmanship as the chorus passes your seat. Without revealing spoilers for those who haven't seen the stage show, if you are familiar with the movie it won't be hard to figure out that the costume department may also be responsible for what is one of the best special effects in the show during "Let it Go." Do not take your eyes off the stage during this number; you don't want to miss it.
It is also in "Let it Go" that you can see the amazing lighting design of the show. Each and every cue moves the song along and highlights Elsa beautifully. The lighting never upstages her and works in great time with the music shifts and key changes—a stunning job in this department. Also keep in mind that if the lighting designer doesn't work closely with the costume designer, the costumes may seem lackluster and dull. Here, the costumes and lighting form a beautiful partnership indeed.
The next number up is "In Summer;" at this point we are riding high from "Let it Go," and the show is starting to get long. When Olaf comes out, the kids perk up—every last one of them. He is indeed a fan favorite and even the air in the theater crackles. The actor manipulates Olaf as a puppet attached to his feet. From the balcony you really can only focus on Olaf but in the orchestra you may be looking at the actor more. Either way this is truly a highlight of the show.
The costume designers hit it out of the park again as the chorus of bathing beauties come out. However, this song is another missed opportunity for choreography. Instead we get vintage postcard poses, which may be enough for an audience focused on Olaf, but with the amazing amount of seating up in the balcony and mezzanine, in addition to the stage's turntable, there is a perfect opportunity for a Busby Berkeley-inspired number. Out of the four shows I saw, the four different actors playing Olaf all had excellent comic timing and beautiful singing voices.
After "In Summer" is where the book falls apart. In order to keep the show to an hour long, we are railroaded through scene after scene to push to the end. Disney may not be able to fix this in the the theme park because the only way to do so would be to cut some of the current numbers. That seems highly unlikely, plus the structure of this movie musical keeps the songs frontloaded so the only choice is to let the book suffer. Maybe when this production goes to the cruise ships they will opt for an 80-minute version to make a little more sense of the plot.
The songs in Frozen are all wonderful tunes and first rate compositions, but are all rather disjointed, seeming to come from many different shows rather than a cohesive piece. "Fixer Upper" is the best example of this. Here is also a moment where being in the mezzanine or balcony is beneficial. The costumes are clunky and bulky, and from the front rows just downright creepy in the mouth area to allow the performers to sing. "Fixer Upper" is too much of a fixer upper and this is a number that could easily be cut to move the show along.
The movie itself has a quick wrap up, but the stage show really is confusing if you are not familiar with the film. If you have ever seen it, you will definitely be confused about Hans' motivations and just plain confused by the Duke of Weaselton. You get that they are villains, but if you miss a line or two you may not be sure about their motives. Elsa's capture is so quick and half heartedly played out that the small percentage of the audience that doesn't know the story won't understand what she is doing up stage right in the balcony with shackles on. You may also ask yourself why the Duke is with Hans also in shackles at the end. Just sit back and shrug and enjoy the finale, which is a very nice wrap up of "Love is an Open Door" ending the show on a really upbeat and fun musical button.
In all fairness to Disney, this is a difficult movie musical to translate to the stage. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King , and Hercules are all written more like stage shows, and therefore much easier to transition into stage form. Even though the audience in the theater seemed bored at times, the ultimate result was that they pretty much unanimously loved the show. An expectation in a theme park is very different than if you have paid $100 per ticket on Broadway. All of the songs hit the right note and all of the performers are top drawer. That level of professionalism in the casting ultimately attests to Aristotle's Poetics in that the audience may talk about the special effects and staging, but without such amazing performers none of that would matter. I think Frozen will be at Disney California Adventure for quite some time and it will be many years before Disney can see fit to let the show go.