It has a decades-old pedigree of creating animated classics, but Disney isn't shy about bringing its cartoon heroes into the real world. Not only is the entertainment giant in the process of transposing many of its most beloved animated films into live-action remakes, but it also continues to expand its portfolio of stage musicals.
Following in the footsteps of global megahits Aladdin and The Lion King, Disney's frosty fable Frozen is the latest story to tread the boards – a decision that was surely a no-brainer for the show’s creators at Disney Theatrical. Not only is the movie original one of the most wildly successful animated blockbusters of recent years, but the soundtrack is also laced with Broadway-worthy belters and up-tempo earworms including arguably the most cherished song in the Disney canon since Aladdin’s ‘A Whole New World’, the Idina Menzel-immortalised ‘Let it Go’.
Traditionally, Disney’s model for rolling out its stage musicals has been pretty firmly stamped: debut the show on Broadway, followed by a US tour before transferring to London’s West End and then, box office willing, the rest of the world. Aladdin, for example, premiered in New York in July of 2011, a full six years before the show eventually made its way to Australia.
However, these are strange times we’re living in, especially when it comes to touring theatre. While stages in the majority of cities around the world remain shuttered due to the ongoing health crisis, Australia’s theatres are once again alive with performance, and thanks to support from the federal and state governments, Sydney is not only the first city outside of the US to stage Frozen, but currently, it is the only place in the world where the show can be seen. The production is also the first major import to open in Australia since global shutdowns stopped productions in their tracks early in the year.
For these reasons, coupled with the existing popularity of its cinematic counterpart, hype surrounding Frozen’s opening had been (ironically) white-hot. As the curtain rose on the show’s official Aussie premiere, the celeb-studded audience packing out the Capitol Theatre erupted in thunderous applause. It was an apt reception for a show that certainly channels the same aesthetics and emotions of the film. And yet, this IRL retelling of Frozen stands apart from the movie in some beautifully touching ways.
Like Disney’s other stage musicals, there are some notable departures from the original story, plus the addition of several new songs. Partly this is for pacing reasons; the first half ends with ‘Let it Go’ – because frankly, what could possibly follow such a show-stealing number – so ensuring that this song lands in the right spot requires a bit of tailoring. But there is also some dramatic refocusing that adds even greater depth to the relationship between sisters Elsa (Jemma Rix) and Anna (Courtney Monsma).
After Elsa’s frost magic almost kills her sister as a child, these two young princesses are kept apart, while Elsa waits to come of age and ascend the throne of the vaguely Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle. Despite this enforced estrangement, Anna’s love for her sister remains unshakable, even when Elsa’s out-of-control powers threaten to destroy their lives. As the character wielding the spectacular ice magic, the film iteration is firmly anchored to Elsa, but on stage, it’s Anna at the story’s heart, driving the emotional impetus. In many ways, this makes shouldering the role of Anna even more challenging. She’s a character who is quirky and awkward, uncertain at times, yet tenacious and compassionate. Mastering the nuance of these qualities is no easy task, but Monsma nails every beat, down to its last detail. There are moments where the movie’s Anna is clearly a muse, in mannerism and reaction, but much of Sydney’s Anna is of Monsma’s making, and it’s an utter triumph.
Rix still gets her moments in the spotlight, however. Having made her name performing Elphaba in Wicked, a role that is similarly hooked to one epic song, she is an ideal choice for Elsa, and in her astonishing delivery of ‘Let it Go’, Rix is truly a force of nature.
The supporting cast are equally accomplished – Thomas McGuane as the wooing Prince Hans and Sean Sinclair, who brings a hint of hipster swagger to the role of ice merchant Kristoff, are standouts. But special mention must go to Matt Lee, who masterfully performs the role of magical, summer-lovin’ snowman Olaf while also skillfully operating his character’s puppet. Almost all the comic relief in the show hinges on this goofy snowball, and Lee finds laughs in the smallest of gestures.
Where this stage version slightly under-delivers is in the scale of its world-building. It’s a tall order, to be fair, given the spectacular CGI sorcery and Arctic vistas this production attempts to evoke, and at certain key moments, trundled icicles and flurries of stage snow just can’t live up to the audience’s expectations. But ultimately, this show is not attempting to be a slavish mirror to its on-screen twin. In all the ways that matter most to a live performance – the sincerity of the portrayals, the power of the singing, the emotional depth of the relationships – Frozen does exactly what it sets out to do: it melts our hearts.