Disney gives ‘Frozen’ a refreshing update for Broadway stage

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As sister Anna (Patti Murin, left) looks on, Elsa (Caissie Levy) is anointed queen of Arendelle in the Broadway musical “Frozen.” | DEEN VAN MEER

NEW YORK — The curtain goes up and the opening number of the new Broadway musical “Frozen” kicks off with little Disney princesses Anna and Elsa on stage in front of a packed house.

Backstage at the St. James Theatre, their grown-up counterparts are letting loose for an audience of two.

The second-floor dressing room of Caissie Levy, who plays ice queen Elsa (she of the empowerment anthem “Let It Go”), is the location of a nightly dance party co-starring her theatrical partner Patti Murin, aka Elsa’s vivacious, loving younger sister, Anna. Since they don’t have to come out right away, the two use the first 10 minutes of “Frozen” to bust a few moves to the downstairs show tune.

“Sometimes there’s some jumping on the couch, sometimes there are some ballet moves that are truly heinous that no one should ever witness,” Levy says, laughing. “It’s always done in our nude undergarments, which are really unattractive: a whole lot of Spanx and tights, and we don’t look cute at all.”

It’s all business and belting once the Broadway veterans inhabit their characters in Disney’s next big musical extravaganza, which opens Thursday. Producers could have done a note-for-note staging of the 2013 Oscar-winning animated movie and been just fine, financially: The film spawned a cultural phenomenon that continues to this day.

But the movie’s creative team has devised a musical that honors and also adds to “Frozen’s” legacy while making it more socially relevant than ever. Songwriting couple Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez crafted 12 new tunes for the show, and movie director Jennifer Lee wrote the book, which expands Anna and Elsa’s backstory.

Add theatrical director Michael Grandage, who “has taken this story that people think is for little kids because of the branding, and he’s made it this very rich, Shakespearean, lush adult story,” says Anderson-Lopez. “There are some stunningly beautiful, sophisticated things going on on that stage.”

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” at its warm heart is about a pair of sisters who grow up in isolation and find their way back to each other. Due to an accident involving Elsa’s ice powers, she’s kept apart from her sibling for much of their childhood, even as they each harbor a yearning to be close to one another.

When their parents die, Elsa is crowned queen of the kingdom of Arendelle. And after a lifetime of keeping her snowy abilities bottled up, she accidentally lets them loose and turns Arendelle into an icicle. Elsa leaves Arendelle on a mission of self-discovery, while Anna hooks up with hunky ice deliveryman Kristoff (played in the musical by Jelani Alladin) and goofball snowman Olaf (singing puppeteer Greg Hildreth) to find her sister.

The most glaring difference between “Frozen” and many of Levy’s other Broadway productions, including “Hairspray,” “Hair,” “Les Miserables” and “Ghost the Musical,” is the lack of a romantic love interest. “It’s colored the entire experience in a different shade,” Levy says. “It’s been a really cool thing to explore as a woman and as an actor to be doing a show that centers around the love of two sisters. My love interest in the show is Patti, my sister, and what that tells the world is it’s a really exciting time to be doing a show that’s not about a man.”

Jelani Alladin plays Kristoff in “Frozen.” | ANDREW ECCLES

Jelani Alladin plays Kristoff in “Frozen.” | ANDREW ECCLES

That non-romantic take on true love hit a nerve with women when the movie came out, and now with the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, “it’s re-establishing that, but it also explores the complex relationships of sisters and women with each other, said Murin, who also plays Dr. Nina Shore on “Chicago Med.” “It’s not the easiest relationship. We have not been raised as of yet in society to fully support other women, so we’re figuring it out how to do it ourselves.”

Disney is showing its progressive side with another of “Frozen’s” core dynamics: In the movie, Kristoff is a blond white guy who falls for Anna (and vice versa), and in the musical it’s Broadway rookie Alladin, an African-American Brooklynite.

Alladin wanted to bring an emotional quality to Kristoff. “You see the warmth, the tenderness, the heart. He’s not afraid to go there and be that vulnerable person for Anna.”

Not everybody was a fan at first. During a pre-Broadway run in Denver last year, Alladin received hate mail regarding his race and the on-stage interracial romance. (African-American actor James Brown III plays Anna and Elsa’s father in the Broadway production, while Asian-American actress Ann Sanders is their mother.)

“I had to take a moment to say, ‘You know what, if this is what being a pioneer in this type of thing has to be and what I have to deal with, I will deal with it,’ ” Alladin says. But toward the end of their Denver days, he says, “People didn’t say, ‘Oh, there’s a black man playing Kristoff.’ When I came on stage, they just saw Kristoff.”

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

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