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The Snow Queen

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jason Hite and Eryn Murman.
Photo by Haddon Kime

Disney's animated movie musical Frozen had barely begun its white-hot life when The Snow Queen, based on exactly the same Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, opened at San Jose Repertory Theatre in 2013. Comparing the champ film with this musical doesn't reveal many overt similarities, but it doesn't have to: There is, of course, room in the entertainment field for more than one adaptation of any property. But the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of The Snow Queen doesn't always make the case that there's room for this one.

Even if you're not the world's biggest fan of Frozen (as I'm not), there's a clarity and economy to Jennifer Lee's screenplay and Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's score that Kristen Brandt (book and lyrics), Haddon Kime (music and lyrics), and Rick Lombardo (book, lyrics, music, direction and choreography)'s work cannot match. This trio is unquestionably more faithful in translating Andersen's tale of enduring friendship in the frigid wastes, but that does not always prove to be a good—or an entertaining—thing.

The Snow Queen is at its best when it's focusing most intently on Gerda (Eryn Murman) and Kai (John Michael Presney), a pair of youths who are separated when Kai falls under the thrall of the, ahem, bewitching title character (played with glam brio by Jane Pfitsch) and becomes hypnotized to the task of counting snowflakes and answering unanswerable questions about eternity. There's something undeniably powerful about Gerda setting out to find and rescue him, applying her unique style of innocent, unconditional love to assist her across a wide series of adventures.

Those adventures, however, are a problem. Though Andersen integrated scenes of flowers, anthropomorphic birds, and robbers into his tale, he did so with an air of breezy whimsy that made them feel necessary components of their world. But here the action stops dead so the flowers can cavort, the birds (led by an aging crow, played with bright gumption by a scenery-gnawing Jason Hite) can wing on toward an exciting first-act-finale production number, and both the robber girl (Lauren Cipoletti) and her mother (Lee Ann Payne) can have their own endless songs.

By the time a princess (Cipoletti again), reindeer (Reggie D. White), and the so-called Wise Woman of the North (Payne) get into the act, the gaping majority of the more than two dozen characters have been given a stunning amount of front-and-center time. Toss in the not-insignificant fact that neither Gerda nor Kai get many robust character songs, together or apart, and thus can vanish into the background for minutes at a stretch, and you have a narrative in which it's all but impossible to know whom you should follow or care about, and why.

It doesn't help that the show is also incredibly hard-sell, with a too-loud rock-infused score of nearly 30 songs (many of which are accompanied by the instrument-playing company in their off moments) that doesn't easily mesh with the storytelling style, and found-object costumes (by Francis Nelson McSherry) that look like they're striving to be more clever than evocative. (The lights and scene-setting projections, by David Lee Cuthbert, are considerably more on point and successful.) Over an hour, perhaps an hour and a half, this all might seem charming, but at a full two and a half hours, it's oppressive—especially for a piece that's obviously courting a family audience.

The best performances come from Murman, Pfitsch, and White, because they don't push harder than they need to, but even their work gets loss among the myriad drifts that choke this otherwise promising musical. When The Snow Queen hits its marks, particularly in its final song, which contrasts the fantasy and the reality of "happily ever after," it does have an endearing quality that can't be ignored. Most of the rest of the time, however, it leaves you shivering.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
The Snow Queen
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