On thin ice with Disney’s stage Frozen

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ABOVE: Caroline Bowman (left) is Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman is Anna with the company of the North American tour of Disney’s Frozen at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Collin Baja is Sven the reindeer and Jeremy Davis is Olaf the snowman. Photos by Matthew Murphy. © Disney

Frozen on stage is a disappointment. Here you have the No. 1 animated film of all time (according to Disney) with one of the most beloved and omnipresent songs from a movie (animated or otherwise) in decades, and it comes from a multimedia entertainment company that has a history of translating its properties to the Broadway musical stage.

When Disney adapts one of its own, the results can vary wildly, with the better results at one end (The Lion King, Aladdin, Peter and the Starcatcher, which is play with music) and the disasters at the other (Tarzan, The Little Mermaid), and a bunch of pleasant enough work filling the middle (Mary Poppins, Newsies, Aida). On that scale Frozen is not a disaster, but it’s barely entertaining and feels like a missed opportunity.

Director Michael Grandage’s production feels like it wants very much to be a Disney Wicked, with two strong women at the center of a story and the requisite bad guys and love story relegated to the periphery. But this show, which features sisters instead of frenemies, doesn’t do world building nearly as efficiently or effectively as Wicked, and the score, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez has a few high points from the movie (“Let It Go,” of course, “Love Is an Open Door” and “In Summer”) and a whole lot of filler.

The set and costume design by Christopher Oram copies the movie slavishly, and the translation from animation to three dimensions lacks imagination in the way the story does. It’s all so literal and without charm. When Elsa finally unleashes her powers in “Let It Go” and builds an ice palace, there’s a spiffy instant costume change, but the palace itself is something akin to a Swarovski-sponsored Christmas display at Nordstrom. The rest feels very theme park fake with heavy reliance on projections (by Finn Ross trying hard to turn live action back into animation) and icy lighting (by Natasha Katz).

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Performances are fine, but there’s not a lot demanded of the actors in terms of complication or subtlety. Voices all have that singing competition belt, and leads Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna do their best to forge a sisterly bond and bridge the tonal gap in Jennifer Lee’s lazy book that shifts quickly from dramatic and dull to contemporary cartoon goofy.

What charm there is in this plodding production comes from Jeremy Davis as the fully visible puppeteer behind Olaf, the magically conjured snowman who likes warm hugs. Designed by Michael Curry (who provided similar services for The Lion King), the puppet has more personality that almost anyone on stage except Sven the reindeer, rendered as a fully costumed character and performed beautifully by Collin Baja and Dan Plehal alternating in the physically demanding role.

Of the humans, the brightest spark on the iceberg comes from Dominic Dorset as Kristoff, whose best song is still the sweetly silly “Reindeer(s) are Better Than People” from the movie, though he does his best with the heavy handed ballad “What Do You Know About Love?”

Even though the creative team has apparently tried to deepen the original story and correct the fact that the movie simply stops being a musical about halfway through, the results are so middling, there can’t be another reason for the show’s existence other than a money grab. There’s not a lot here for adults or musical theater enthusiasts, and for the target audience of kids, there will be moments of delight separated by too many turgid stretches.

There’s only one bit of appropriate advice here, and you probably know what that is. If you’re going to Frozen with an expectation of high-level Disney entertainment, do the opposite of hang on to it.

Disney’s Frozen continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $50.50-$294.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit sfbroadway.com.

I believe! Book of Mormon really is that good

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Phyre Hawkins (left) provides an African send-off to Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Gavin Creel, center) and Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) in The Book of Mormon at the Curran Theatre. Below: Creel (center) and the cast celebrate the profane and profound joys of The Book of Mormon. Photos by Joan Marcus

Take it on faith: The Book of Mormon is every bit as profane and profound and funny and sweet as everyone says it is. The monster Broadway hit about Mormon missionaries in Uganda is now working its way around the country and just opened a sold-out, five-week run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season.

Herewith, The Book of Theater Dogs on The Book of Mormon:

For I believe…that creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez have crafted a musical that is old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time, that is outrageous and (for the faint of heart) shocking while never roaming too far from the heartfelt center of the show. A true musical comedy in which the music is not only hummable but also energizing and exciting, Mormon inspires huge waves of laughter. You know when individual lyrics get laughs – not just punchlines and dialogue – you’re doing something right. The fact that Parker, Lopez and Stone collaborated on music, lyrics and book is fascinating and most likely accounts for expertly honed 2 1/2-hour production, which runs like a precision instrument without ever feeling cold or mechanical. Credit must also go to co-directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw, who also contributed the zesty choreography, for keeping the machine running at such an efficient clip. The only number in the entire show that doesn’t feel quite right to me, the one number that feels like something directly out of Stone and Parker’s “South Park” empire is the Act 2 “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which needlessly goes for cheap laughs using people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran.

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For I believe…amid all the silliness and the nonstop attempts to skewer everything under the pop-culture sun, there’s a serious examination of faith here – its power, its abuses and its grace. Mormons provide an easy target because they’re distinctly American, they’ve only been around for 182 years and their actual Book of Mormon (sort of a third chapter to the Bible) contains some pretty far-out stuff like God living on a planet called Kolob and the notion that there were highly evolved tribes in ancient North America and that in the three days after his crucifixion, Jesus visited this tribe. (All these examples come from the show, but they all come from the teachings.) But the point here isn’t to make fun of Mormons, well, OK, it is a little bit, but this is high-speed broadband making fun of everyone. The point is more to say something about how powerful a human being’s faith is, how a human chooses to place that faith and the responsibility of whatever person or group is the recipient of that faith. The details about the Mormon teachings are funny because they seem as sci-fi as they do sacred, but nothing detailed here is any more outrageous than say a god taking corporeal form in a manger-born baby under a bright star that attracted visitors and little drummer boys from far and wide. Faith in itself is hopeful and life-affirming and a means to connect with other humans and with the divine, whatever that may be. The Book of Mormon, for all its Broadway trappings (and the spoofs of Wicked, The Sound of Music and The King and I and The Lion King among others are kind of brilliant in and of themselves), actually has something serious to say about the care and feeding of belief.

For I believe…the touring production is every bit as good as the original Broadway production. The painted flat sets by Scott Pask, the sharp lighting by Brian MacDevitt and the nine-piece orchestra (under the musical direction of Cian McCarthy and with musical supervision and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus) are all in great shape. Nothing is out of place here, but that’s as it should be for tickets that reportedly cost up into the hundreds of dollars. The real charm of the show, for all its sturdy construction and technical efficiency, comes from the cast, and in leads Gavin Creel as idealistic, egotistical Elder Price and Jared Gertner as shlubby misfit Elder Cunningham, we have two performers who know exactly how to generate big laughs without going for big laughs. Creel’s animated face and startlingly long arms (seriously, like the alien at the end of Close Encounters) make him cartoonish in the best way. He can get a laugh just from smiling or widening his eyes. And his voice is golden, no more so than on the show’s centerpiece ballad, “I Believe.” Gertner’s character could be just a variation on “South Park’s” tubby, belligerent Cartman, but in the right hands, like Gertner’s, Elder Cunningham emerges as a passionate, intelligent young man with barely a trace of social skills and a desperate need for connection. Gertner is absolutely hilarious as he mangles the Mormon teachings by infusing them with Hobbits, Star Wars characters and complete nonsense that his Ugandan disciples completely take to their hearts. Creel and Gertner make a great team (the former is lanky and tall, the latter is not), and they get great support from Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi, an innocent Ugandan woman who “texts” using an old typewriter and Grey Henson as the gay-but-can’t-talk-about-it Elder McKinley. Henson leads the troupe on the show’s stand-out number, “Turn It Off,” an ode to deep repression that includes sparkly vests and fantastic tapping. Kevin Mambo as Nabalungi’s dad also stops the show with “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a “Hakuna Matata” send-up that translates to “fuck you, God.”

And lo, the audiences, they did laugh. The performers, they did expend much talent and energy. And God, not seeming to mind the middle finger, decreed that the money shall pour forth, and the world of musical theater has another touchstone until the next mega-hit doth rise. I believe.

[bonus interview]
I talked to the Book of Mormon creative team and members of the touring company cast for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]
Here’s original Broadway star Andrew Rannells (now on NBC’s “The New Normal”) Elder Price’s big Act 2 number “I Believe,” sung just before an encounter with a Ugandan warlord results in the placing of The Book of Mormon in a very uncomfortable body cavity.

The Book of Mormon is sold out. Sorry. But don’t despair completely. A limited number of $29 tickets are distributed by lottery two hours before each performance. The show continues through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.