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Frozen review – the West End finally welcomes Disney's musical epic

The musical is playing at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon
© Johan Persson

It's not often that I realise I am entirely the wrong demographic for a theatre outing. I thought Frozen, with its girl power story of two sisters uniting to save the world through love and sisterhood, would suit me and my friend down to the ground. But as we walked into the sumptuously remodelled Drury Lane Theatre, I wasn't quite so sure. We seemed to be the only people in the audience who weren't dressed in blue satin dresses or purple cloaks – or their parents.

This is the problem for Frozen, the musical. The 2013 Disney cartoon on which it is based is so popular with young children, families have found themselves watching it on solid repeat. Its sisters Elsa, who has the magic power of freezing anything she puts her mind to, and Anna who refuses to leave her to her fate, are indelible brand images, their clothes filling countless dressing up boxes. There's also a comic snowman (Olaf) and a kind ice-seller, Kristoff, to mimic and enjoy.

Stephanie McKeon and Obioma Ugoala
© Johan Persson

Michael Grandage's stage production consequently can't stray too far from the original without alienating the people it seeks to attract. On Broadway, this proved a problem. The show opened to slightly chilly reviews, and closed permanently when lockdown came, after only 850 performances. But the US doesn't have the British tradition of panto – and if you regard Frozen as an unseasonal Christmas treat, then it is the most enormous fun. It's got snow, ice, comic characters, mystic figures with eyes that light up and some belting songs, with new numbers added by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez to the seven, in the film. The book by Jennifer Lee has its problems – the girls are on separate adventures, Anna accompanied by the comic characters, Elsa stuck in her ice palace – but it is also a celebration of sisterly affection and the heroines are anything but sinecures.

Grandage and his team – designer Christopher Oram, and lighting designer Neil Austin – have thrown every theatrical trick in the book at the show to make it come to theatrical life, and a lot of it sticks. The opening scenes where the inseparable young princesses Elsa and Anna (charming Tilly-Raye Bayer and lively Asande Masike) are torn apart by Elsa's magical powers are fluidly and energetically staged, with warm yellow lights bathing a medieval palace, with high windows, massive doors and painted wood-panelled walls sliding in and out of place.

Samantha Barks
© Johan Persson

Once Elsa's powers are revealed at her coronation, the production doesn't try to disguise the fact that a stage can't do things as seamlessly as a cartoon: the icicles that snap into place at the side of the stage are beautiful but clearly unreal. Yet Austin's wonderfully inventive lighting, and the simple tricks of curtains covered with crystals, does make the new ice palace the most magical place. Its sheer size makes Anna's journey across a 70ft ice bridge, with Kristoff (a beaming and endearing Obioma Ugoala) and his reindeer Sven (an amazingly balletic Ashley Birchall, inside a shaggy costume) pretty impressive.
The fact that you can see Craig Gallivan as he manipulates the model of the snowman Olaf, and speaks his lines, adds rather than detracts from the humorous effect. Rob Ashford's choreography contributes a certain swirling liveliness for a lot of peasants on the move, and one brilliantly effective number to Hygge, where naked (well, body-stockinged) sauna takers with twigs are transformed into a chorus line.

In the centre of all this busy action, of course, are Stephanie McKeon and Samantha Barks. Barks' is a beautiful Elsa, the crystal clarity of her voice cutting through the soaring "Let It Go", but also bringing a tender wistfulness to songs such as "Dangerous to Dream". McKeon is terrific fun, her wide-eyed Anna coloured with exactly the right sense of adventure and determination. Together the sisters – who now have a song where they reflect their feelings for each other – power the show, bringing warmth to its frozen heart. Which is exactly as it should be. It isn't art, but it isn't a cartoon either.

You exit via the gift shop, but you will have been entertained en route.