Elsa in glittery dress and Anna in darker dress in front of ice-covered arches
Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Caroline Innerbichler as Anna in Frozen at Cadillac Palace. Credit: Deen van Meer

For all the gleeful gore of the Brothers Grimm, I’d have to say that Hans Christian Andersen was the more disturbing creator of childhood nightmares for me, because his stories seem just close enough to things that could actually—do actually—happen to kids. Especially if you’re an anxious kid who obsesses about the consequences of not following all the rules. (Hello, “The Red Shoes.”) 

All right, maybe no kid is forced to dance without pause because they wore fancy kicks to church instead of their sensible black shoes. But consider the “The Little Match Girl,” who freezes to death. (Incidentally, this story probably inspired “Artificial Flowers,” the wack-a-doodle Bobby Darin song where he gives his best bopping upbeat delivery of the lyric “They found little Annie, all covered with ice, clutching her poor frozen shears.”) Kids do die of exposure, and growing up in a cold Great Lakes climate makes that fear more realistic. (Let’s not also forget that a child died in the deep freeze in Texas just last year.)

In Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” ice and cold become personified in the title character. If you haven’t read that story recently, do yourself a favor and check it out before seeing either Frozen with Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace or The Snow Queen, Lanise Antoine Shelley’s new adaptation of Andersen’s story for House Theatre of Chicago. Not that you need the original to appreciate either of these productions, which are both worth seeing for their own reasons. But it just might give a glimpse into how the creators borrowed slivers and sections of the original tale to create different, yet somehow complementary, visions of what the Worst Thing Possible might be.

In the original, a demon invents a mirror that renders the beautiful mundane, and the mundane hideous. When the mirror falls to earth and breaks, splinters get into people’s eyes, making them see the worst in the world and each other; or even worse, the glass enters their hearts and turns them into unfeeling lumps of ice. Two children and best friends, Kay and Gerda, suffer the consequences of all this when Kay gets one of the splinters in his eye, making him turn away from Gerda and their innocent childhood pastimes. He’s subsequently kidnapped by the title character, who takes him to her palace of ice. Gerda’s adventures in trying to rescue her friend from the Snow Queen involve talking crows, a reindeer, a prince and princess, and a robber girl who sleeps next to Gerda with a knife. Among other things. 

Frozen and The Snow Queen
Frozen Through 1/22/22: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 2 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 1:30 and 6:30 PM (see website for holiday schedules); Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph, 800-775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, $55-$175.
The Snow Queen Through 1/2/22: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM (see website for holiday schedules); Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, thehousetheatre.com, $20-$50.

So yeah. The creators of Frozen (book writer Jennifer Lee and composers Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez) decided to “let it go” when it came to fealty to Andersen’s story. (The musical is, of course, based on the 2013 Disney film, which Lee, Lopez, and Anderson-Lopez also worked on; the musical started out in 2017 and hit Broadway in 2018.) But the central idea of someone who is frozen out of their family and community because of their own self-doubts and fears of hurting those they love meshes well with the split between Kay and Gerda. And making the central characters sisters who love each other, but find it increasingly difficult to connect due to circumstances seemingly beyond their control, is a wise and sensitive choice—one that resonates with adults and kids alike.

But don’t worry; the touring production of Frozen now onstage in Chicago isn’t Ingmar Bergmanesque gloom and doom. And it may be the perfect family outing (provided you and the kids are vaxxed or can provide a negative COVID test) for this holiday season. Judging by the happy excited reactions around me on opening night, a lot of people have been waiting to see this show in particular. 

For those who worry that exposure to a parade of Disney princesses sends the wrong empowerment message to young girls—fear not. The Elsas and Annas I saw in the audience had no problem letting us know what they thought of the proceedings, and they sure didn’t need a prince to get them to invest in the story. (Sorry, Hans.) And this production’s grown-up Elsa and Anna (Caroline Bowman and Caroline Innerbichler, respectively) made touching honest connections with each other across the expanses of time and place, as well as with the enthusiastic audience who seemed ready to jump up and sing along with them at times.

Sometimes the show, directed by Michael Grandage, feels like it’s rushing through some plot points a bit dutifully. The use of video montages makes it feel like we’re getting a highlights reel (“Last week on Frozen!”). By contrast, the dance sequences, choreographed by Rob Ashford, feel full of life and kinetic charm—even if I don’t really get why the extended one-note-joke “Hygge” number at the top of act two needs to be there.

Scene-stealing puppet work from Sven the reindeer (Evan Strand and Collin Baja switch off in the role) and by F. Michael Haynie’s Olaf, the talking snowman (created in happier days by the young Elsa and Anna), add crowd-pleasing charm. (A kid behind me loudly and happily said, “Hi, Olaf!” each time Haynie appeared, and that is absolutely the correct response.) Elsa’s transformation into that glittery dress during that song won well-deserved applause. But the real transformation celebrated in this charming, thoughtful, and sometimes downright magical show is the power of love to melt hearts and save families. And if it also shows young fans the power of live performance, so much the better.

Vero Maynez and Jackie Seijo in House Theatre’s The Snow Queen Credit Michael Brosilow

If losing one’s family and community is the Worst Thing Imaginable in Frozen, Shelley’s version of The Snow Queen (directed by Amber Montgomery) kicks it up several notches by recasting the tale as a fable about global climate change. The show replaces House’s long-running non-ballet version of The Nutcracker, which was more about grief and its toll on the soul of one family. Now we’re in the big existential fight for the soul and future of humanity.

It’s a lot to pin on one story, and Shelley’s takes a while to find its feet. As in the original, we meet two kids: Kai (Vincent Williams) and Quin (Jackie Seijo). The title character here is rendered as Chione (Vero Maynez), who spends her days with a talking white raven, Harpier (Thomas Tong), a polar bear, and an arctic fox. But when the kids accidentally break her mirror that shows the world’s wonders (at least, the wonders of the world where winter occurs), Kai and Quin end up separated, and Chione retreats.

Throughout the show, we the audience are implicated in what’s going on with lines like “Do you want to watch, or do you want to participate?” (Nobody did actually respond on opening night to Chione’s questions to the audience, and I wonder what will happen if they do, since the show seems built to accommodate that possibility.) Obviously the point being made is that putting the fractured world back together again is on all of us.

But it feels like there is still some narrative wheel-spinning going on early in Shelley’s script before we get a handle on what the world of this story is. Once Quin is on their quest for Kai, it becomes clearer. The fact that Quin is an orphan who apparently has never felt fully at home in the world adds emotional resonance to that quest.

Polar bear puppet designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock for The Snow Queen Credit Michael Brosilow

As with Frozen, the appearance of the puppet creatures (created for House by Jesse Mooney-Bullock) won well-deserved audience attention. The other production elements, including Sully Ratke’s scenic and costume design, Olanrewaju Adewole and Kevin O’Donnell’s sound and music, Trey Brazeal’s lights, and Erin Pleake’s videos, are at the usual high standard for the House.

Among the supporting performances, Tong’s Harpier is quietly touching as the loyal aging companion, while Molly Brennan as Womoon (according to the program, the embodiment of “Mother Earth”) is wry and no-nonsense. 

But in order for the story to fully land and make the connections between the personal relationship of Kai and Quin, the larger responsibilities of the characters to the world they share, and to the audience itself (the younger members of whom will definitely be inheriting a damaged planet), we need a little more clarity at the top of the show —particularly about Chione and how she views her own role on the planet. (You can watch some “prologue” videos, created by Ratke and Matthew C. Yee, about Chione’s animal companions on the House website; I wonder if incorporating something like this into the show itself would add to our understanding about Chione’s backstory.)

Shelley and Montgomery have already laid the groundwork for a powerful fable, and their version of The Snow Queen deserves plaudits for going beyond the original tale, while also, in their own way, nodding to the vision of divinity and redemption Andersen lays out.