Grab your daughter and run to see Freaky Friday, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. Don’t live nearby? Don’t worry. Freaky Friday was developed by Disney Theatrical to be licensed through its partner, Musical Theatre International, first to professional and then to amateur theaters. So the production may be coming to a venue near you. When it does, don’t miss it.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton (Photo by Jim Saah)
Disney, constantly mining its film vault for material that can be recast for the stage, made a wise call with this one. Freaky Friday is the kind of feel good show with a message that never grows old. As a writer for NBC’s Parenthood, Bridget Carpenter knows something about family relationships. For the musical’s book, she took the basic story – a mom and daughter inadvertently switching bodies for a day – while updating the themes to resonate with a young, tech savvy audience. Besides an enjoyable two hours in the theater, the musical should spark followup conversations with young people about social pressure, cliques, body image, and privacy.
Disney decided to premiere the production at Signature and brought together a talented creative team to make it happen. They included, from Broadway: director, Christopher Ashley (Memphis); musical score, Tom Kitt, and lyrics, Brian Yorke (the duo behind the Tony Award-winning Next to Normal); choreography, Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet); set design, Beowulf Boritt (Tony Award, Act One); Emily Rebholz, costume design (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike); and lighting design, Howell Brinkley (Hamilton, Tony Award).
Heidi Blickenstaff with the Cast (Photo by Jim Saah)
Heidi Blickenstaff, who delighted Broadway audiences with her performance in Something Rotten, plays the mom, Katherine, a widow and type-A personality who is driven to control everything and everyone around her. Besides running a successful catering business, she’s taken on the job of planning her wedding to Mike (Alan H. Green). But she still has time to micromanage her children, ten year-old Fletcher (Jake Heston Miller), and teenage Ellie (Emma Hunton).
Katherine fails to see that her upcoming marriage is having an impact on her children, who still miss their father. While the younger Fletcher retreats into a fantasy world with his puppets – a hippo and a starfish – Ellie lashes out at her mother. A tussle over a vintage hourglass with magical powers zaps Katherine into her daughter’s body, while Ellie morphs into her mother’s. Ellie is quickly overwhelmed, struggling to cope with being a mother and soon to be wife, while her employees look to her for guidance. Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself in high school, struggling in gym class, dissecting a frog in biology, and dealing with mean girls.
Blickenstaff perfectly captures the mannerisms, facial expressions, and speech patterns of a teenager. She twists strands of hair, wrings her hands, and bats her eyes. Faced with Adam (Jason Gotay), the boy Ellie has a crush on, she positively melts. The poor young man, has no idea why his classmate’s mother is acting so strangely.
Sherri L. Edelen, Emma Hutton, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Heidi Blickenstaff (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Conversely, Hunton becomes more restrained, an adult in a teenage body. When mother and daughter wind up in the high school counselor’s office, what unfolds is clever and hilarious. Two officials (played by Jason SweetTooth Williams and Sherri L. Edelen) critique Ellie’s school performance. Katherine (really Ellie), dismisses their concerns, her casual body language speaking volumes. Meanwhile, Ellie (really Katherine), takes their concerns seriously, perched on the edge of the sofa, ready to take action. Both actresses play the scene for all it’s worth.
Jason Gotay with the Teen Ensemble (Photo by Jim Saah)
The teen ensemble is terrific. Kudos to Trujillo’s choreography, particularly the gym scene where the students use inflated bouncy balls to great effect. Storm Lever, as Ellie’s nemesis, Savannah, perfectly captures the manipulative attitude that defines so many mean girls.
Heidi Blickenstaff and Jake Heston Miller (Photo by Margot Schulman)
Jake Heston Miller, who has to be one of the busiest child actors around, having last appeared as Oliver at Arena Stage, is just plain adorable as Fletcher. And the scenes between him and Katherine (who is really Ellie) are sweet moments, sibling bonding under unusual circumstances. Katherine first bursts his bubble in Act One with the hurtful, “Parents Lie,” then redeems herself in Act Two with the sweet “After All of This and Everything.”
There’s a brilliant and brave moment in the musical which will speak to so many young girls who obsess over their bodies. Ellie and her two besties – Katie Ladner as Gretchen and Shayna Blass as Hannah – strip down to own their appearance. Bravo!
With the day coming to a close, Katherine and Ellie manage to switch back, just in time for Katherine to be wed to the long-suffering, yet very perceptive, Mike. He knows better than Katherine that winning over his stepchildren will take some time. But thanks to the day’s events, mother and daughter have reached a greater understanding. There’s no better way to empathize with someone else than by taking time to actually walk in their shoes. That’s a message for the ages and for all ages.
For information on licensing Freaky Friday, contact MTI by phone, 212-541-4684, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Top photo credit: Margot Schulman
Through November 20, 2016
4200 Campbell Avenue