Theatre Interview: Ashley Birchall on Playing Sven the Reindeer in Disney’s ‘Frozen’ at Theatre Royal Drury Lane
One of the most highly anticipated new musicals is Disney’s Frozen, which has five productions opening across the world this year. The musical follows the events of the first Frozen film, released back in 2013. Today I’m focusing on the new production at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, currently on and booking through April 3, 2022. It’s a great opportunity to see your favorite characters live on stage in London’s West End: Elsa (Samantha Barks) with her ice powers, her sister Anna, Olaf the snowman (Craig Gallivan), Kristoff (Obioma Ugoala), and many more.
I spoke on Zoom recently with Ashley Birchall, one of the actors who plays Sven the reindeer. Birchall filled me in on what you need to pass a Sven audition and what it’s like to wear the beautiful and large costume.
Do you remember your first encounter with the Frozen films?
My little boy is Frozen mad. It’s always been a big thing at our house. When he was a very young age, he asked for an Elsa dress. That would be what my big encounters were com[ing] across Frozen, [through] my little boy.
What was it like to be in Mary Poppins Returns?
It was amazing. To do two Disney things, a show and a film, is a dream come true. I feel very privileged to be able to do that.
What are some other interesting costumes you’ve worn as an actor?
I’ve had a career with very big costumes. On Starlight Express, I was in a train. In Wicked, [I was] a monkey. Then with Pet Shop Boys, [I was] a balloon. Now I’m a reindeer! They’re all fun and unique in their own way.
Ashley Birchall, who plays Sven
Do you alternate nights as Sven?
My colleague Mikayla [Jade] and I do four shows each week. We alternate one-and-one to take a bit of the stress off and rest our bodies.
If I wanted to be Sven in this musical, what would that take? Do you have an exercise regimen?
They say that we carry 80 percent of our body weight on our hands throughout the show. When we auditioned, it was a very strength-based audition. It was all carrying a lot of weight on our upper body and our hands. We did a lot of handstands and weight transfer with one hand against the wall. We walked around the room on our feet and hands.
When it came to rehearsals, it would be walking with press-up bars or dumbbells in our hands just to get used to the weight of everything being at our hands. Then we’d get onto stilts and build up our time. On the stilts, we’d do three minutes, then seven minutes, and then 12 minutes. Then we’d do it in costume. It was a very intense couple of weeks to get us up to show standard.
When you wear the reindeer costume, what’s your visibility range like?
Most of the time, what we can see is the floor. If you need to look in front of you, you need to look up a lot of the time. You have very limited sight anyway because the costume puts blinkers on you at the sides of your face.
We rely a lot upon the speakers in the floor or someone’s shadow for what we need to do. When there’s a lot of dry ice or fog on the stage, then visibility can become quite hard.
Samantha Barks as Elsa (Credit: Johan Persson)
Do you have a favorite song from the show?
“Let it Go” is iconic, obviously. There are so many. The whole arrangement is beautiful, but I have to say “Monster” is my favorite.
What’s it been like to work with the cast?
It’s been amazing. The whole cast is extremely talented. Everyone is lovely and they’re beautiful people. After the past year we’ve had, it’s been the biggest breath of fresh air to come into this company and to work at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which just had its £60 million revamp. Everyone gets on so well, which is everything you want after what we’ve just been through.
When they asked you to audition, did they show you a picture of Sven from the Disney film? Did they give you a rough idea about what your costume would look like?
To be completely honest, I had no idea what I was going in for. My agent called me, I think, a day or two before and said, “They want to audition you for Sven. Can you make this day?”
I said I’d make the day. It wasn’t until I went home that evening when I looked it up, that I went, “Oh! This is how it’s going to be.”
I thought this is amazing and let’s do it.
What’s one of your favorite scenes to perform?
It’s near the end of the show. I personally love when we bring Anna back to the castle. It’s a very short scene. I don’t know what it is but I just love it. It’s when we drop Anna off at the castle gates and the castle guards take Anna back in. Kristoff goes off and sings his Lullaby song. To me, that flows really nicely and it’s my favorite scene.
Frozen fever has been a thing for a while. People love these films. Was there any pressure to get the musical right?
Frozen is one of the biggest shows in the world. The pressure is massive. I love pressure. It drives me to be better. I got [the role] in February and then by March, we went into lockdown. We had to wait for a whole year with not only the pressure of the show, trying to stay fit for it when the gyms and everything were closed. Then is the theatre going to happen? Will it come back?
It was a very daunting year. The cast has come together and made something incredible. It’s been amazing.
Samantha Barks as Elsa, Stephanie McKeon as Anna, Ensemble (Credit: Johan Persson)
What makes Sven endearing to audiences?
If you’ve seen the Disney-film Sven, he’s a lovable character. People warm to him straightaway. Sven in the musical is different. The costume is more realistic. When we’re at the gate, I think for the audience it’s like, “Whoa, there’s a reindeer on stage!”
It’s not like a cartoon. It’s real. For the first part of the show, I think people are trying to figure out how it’s done. Then they just let their barriers down as if they believe it’s a real reindeer on the stage. They invest in the character.
Since you wear this costume, do you enjoy a bit of anonymity?
It’s so strange to have the people at the stage door. It’s quite a surreal feeling because when everyone [else] walks out, [fans] ask, “Can we have a photo?”
When I walk out, they ask me who I was. I [have to] say, “I play Sven.”
Then they say, “Oh, my God. Amazing!”
It’s nice if you have to get home quick. You just walk out the stage door.
What’s a big lesson you want to take with you as you move forward?
To be grateful for what you’ve got. Be grateful about how lucky we are to be here and doing this show. For a year, we haven’t been able to do what we love.
If we have a sequel to this musical, would you like to be Sven again?
I’d love to be in this part for years. It’s physical. You can act. It’s very rewarding. There are mystery elements to it. I’d be happy to do it.
Find out more about Disney’s ‘Frozen,’ the production in London’s West End, at the LW Theatres website.
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FROZEN brings glamour, cash flow, and snow to downtown Buffalo. Only four shows left!
THE BASICS: The national re-launch of the cut-short-by-Covid national touring production of the Broadway musical FROZEN presented by Disney Theatrical Productions opened on September 10 and runs for an additional week through September 24, Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org Only four shows left. Note the half-hour earlier than usual start time on Friday. Runtime: 2 hours 15 minutes with one 20 minute intermission
Merch is for sale in the lobby, but not concessions, so there’s never a reason to lower your mask. For the remainder of FROZEN Shea’s posts: “As we raise the curtain for Disney’s Frozen, all patrons, volunteers, and staff are required to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. Masks are required at all times – upon arrival, performance, and departure.” So there is no vaccination requirement for FROZEN. However, after FROZEN, as explained in detail here you’ll need at least one dose of vaccine for TOOTSIE (October 10-16).
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Yes there are a few changes from the animated feature and some new songs, but Elsa and her kid sister Anna are still separated as children to protect Anna; Elsa still runs off to the wilderness to protect her kingdom and family from her negative behavior; and Anna, accompanied by a goofy trio of sidekicks (a smelly mountain man, a shaggy and smelly reindeer, and a snowman who dreams of a summer vacation on the beach… really…) still goes to save her.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: As one patron was overheard to ask: “I wonder how many computers they need to make this show happen?” I don’t know, but that question let’s you know that you get one high-tech wizardly effect after another as the snow swirls and the ice freezes. Perhaps the greatest special effect takes place in the middle of “Let It Go” where in a flash (literally) Elsa changes from her forest green inauguration outfit into a shimmery, icy gown. Note: during that song DO NOT look away. Don’t look at your child, your program, your watch, or anything but the stage.
And there’s also good old-fashioned puppetry in the four foot tall snowman Olaf (voiced and manipulated by F. Michael Haynie dressed in all white) and the reindeer Sven played by the talented (but completely covered up) Evan Strand on Tuesdays (the night I went) and Thursdays. As explained to Theater Talk on WBFO (listen here) by Mason Reeves (who plays the mountain man Kristoff) the actors (including Collin Baja) who play the reindeer are using arm stilts for the front legs, and basically are holding a plank exercise all the time they are on stage. It’s a very realistic effect.
Without a doubt, Caroline Bowman as Elsa has the voice, the looks, and the acting chops that make her a Broadway star. But, her character is, well, kinda cold and distant, ya know? On the other hand, Caroline Innerbichler, as Anna, gets to sing, act, clown, mime, pratfall, then get up and and dance like nobody’s business. When she dances, it’s with Austin Colby, and that’s pretty slick, too. By the way, Austin Colby (Hans) is married in real life to Caroline Bowman (Elsa) but that’s not the only married couple in this show. The music and lyrics are by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez (AVENUE Q, BOOK OF MORMON). Now that’s a power couple.
So, Anna does all that she does and even gets to animate the snowman (or at least his head in one scene) while Haynie, off stage, manages the voice. She’s bubbly, warm, accessible, fun, and, ahem… SHE IS THE HERO OF THIS MUSICAL (he shouted from the rooftops).
As explained by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces , the true hero doesn’t think she’s a hero at all but is compelled to leave her comfortable home and venture forth into danger to ultimately bring back a gift for her people, kingdom, shire, village, planet. For Anna that gift will be not only getting her sister back in her life but also restoring the true Queen of Arendelle to her throne.
How else do we know that Anna is the hero? Because heros never go it alone.
How else do we know that Anna is the hero? Because heros never go it alone. They have to have allies and sidekicks. It’s just the way it is. For Frodo it was Sam; for Luke Skywalker it was the droids, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Sidekicks have to be a little weird because, well… they’re not heroic. So for Anna it’s not only the snowman and the reindeer but also the forest people, Kristoff’s people, who have powerful juju and (spoiler alert) even bring Anna back from the dead. And don’t forget all those reversals of fortune that Anna undergoes. That’s right out of the pamphlet “What to expect when you’re a hero.” She gets zapped not once but twice by big sister and the guy she thought was Mr. Right turns out to be Mr.-oh-so-wrong.
Elsa, on the other hand, is just a problem. Not a problem like Maria, in SOUND OF MUSIC. No, a real problem. “A danger to herself and others” is a phrase that comes to mind. She’s like the addict in the family who says “I can fix it myself.” What Elsa needs is tough love. An intervention sort of. An act of true love by her tough little sister willing to risk everything.
And, because this is a musical, it works. Peace and prosperity are restored. Everyone, except the bad guys, lives happily ever after. But, even though we were surrounded by a sea of Elsas in blue sparkling dresses, there was one brave Anna in the audience (dressed in green) the night we went. Good for you. May you live long and prosper.
Lead image: L-R Elsa and Anna, Caroline Bowman and Caroline Innerbichler
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
Frozen spin-off Olaf Presents coming for Disney Plus Day in November
Disney is hosting a Disney Plus Day in November, and it’s celebrating by adding some TV series and movies to the streaming service. One new addition will be Olaf Presents, a bunch of shorts led by our favourite talking snowman from the animated movie Frozen.
Given the animated series is tied to a full event of news and reveals, not a lot is known right now. Disney says it’ll be a bunch of retellings of popular Disney movies, but with an Olaf twist. What specific films? We don’t know, nor do we know who’s involved in producing it, or how long the episodes will be. We do have a title card treatment, which you can see below.
This isn’t the only drop confirmed for that day, nor is it the only Frozen-related release either. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the latest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is coming to Disney Plus that day, just in time to watch before Eternals, and Frozen Fever, the first Frozen short, will be available too.
Expect all sorts when Disney Plus Day occurs on November 12. Marvel Phase 4, Star Wars, new Disney originals, sequels, everything is likely to get a look during the presentation. One hotly tipped announcement is the premiere date for Ms Marvel, which was delayed into 2022 with no set release window.
❄️ Olaf Presents, a series of Original Shorts revisiting several classic Disney tales with your favorite snowman, arrives November 12 on @DisneyPlus. ❄️ pic.twitter.com/Rvvgp482j3 — Disney Animation (@DisneyAnimation) September 21, 2021
Given the popularity of Frozen, it stands to reason Disney would continue to capitalise on the kids movie. Since coming out in 2013, Anna, Elsa, Olaf, and reindeer Sven have become indelible parts of the House of Mouse’s brand. So far we’ve gotten one direct sequel , 2019’s Frozen 2, and going by this announcement, we can expect more.
Frozen itself is available on Disney Plus now, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theatres worldwide.