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Applause for this ‘Freaky Friday’

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

Disney’s “Freaky Friday,” produced by La Jolla Playhouse in association with Cleveland Playhouse and Houston’s Alley Theatre, settled in Friday, Feb. 3, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, where it continues through March 12.

Staged by La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, the musical is based on Mary Rodgers’ 1972 novel, “Freaky Friday,” and the Walt Disney motion pictures that ensued.

The cast of “Freaky Friday” at La Jolla Playhouse. (Photos by Jim Carmody)

It features dynamite performances by Broadway veterans Heidi Blickenstaff (Broadway’s “Something Rotten” and “[title of show]”) and Emma Hunton (Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal”) as mother and daughter Katherine and Ellie Blake, respectively.

The book is by Bridget Carpenter (TV’s “Parenthood”); music and lyrics by the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning duo Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal” and “If/Then”); with choreography by Sergio Trujillo (“Memphis” and “Jersey Boys”).

The story is narrated by Ellie, who tells us that the freaky Friday in question was the eve of the widowed Katherine’s wedding to the handsome and laid-back Mike (David Jennings), whom Katherine met when she hired him to do some cabinetry. A perfectionist, Katherine has planned and is catering her own wedding. The event has attracted the coveted coverage of Wedding Magazine, which sends a photographer and writer, who arrive on Friday.

Midlife mother and 16-year-old daughter are involved in a wrestling match over an hourglass, one of two that are family heirlooms, when suddenly and surprisingly, they exchange bodies. The sloppy, slightly overweight and decidedly rebellious Ellie, who has wild, orange-tipped hair, inhabits her mother’s neat, well-turned-out body, teetering in heels on the big day.

(l to r) Emma Hunton and Heidi Blickenstaff

And Katherine is equally at sea in her daughter’s turbulently emotional skin, thrust into a day at high school, unaccountably attracted to her daughter’s heartthrob, Adam (vocally talented Chris Ramirez, splendidly performing this role, especially on choreographed hover-board).

Meanwhile, Ellie, trapped in Katherine’s body, must cope with last minute details surrounding the wedding, questions and photo ops with the magazine people, a ruined cake, her grandparents, and the broken and the missing hourglass, to say nothing of her missing preteen brother, Fletcher (played with disarming ease and clear vocalism by Jake Heston Miller).

Augmenting these principal players is a fine singing/dancing company of mean teens, unbending teachers and dense police officers. They are Jeannette Bayardelle, Eean Cochran, Joseph Dellger, Jessie Hooker, David Jennings, Storm Lever, Mary Jo McConnell, Tony Neidenbach, Jennafer [sic] Newberry, Julian Ramos, Alet Taylor, Jason SweetTooth Williams, and swings Katie Banville and Jermaine R. Rembert.

The smooth, flawless vocalism of Hunton and Blickenstaff makes for pleasant, evening-long listening pleasure, with Blickenstaff providing some stunning turns of phrase-endings, especially in “After All This and Everything,” at the end of which she sings, “I love you, I really do” so unforgettably that she breaks a mother’s heart.

The show’s opening ensemble, “Just One Day” sets up the production and introduces most of the characters and dilemmas, which play out on Beowulf Borrit’s off-kilter suburban Chicago landscape and a basic set that switches from living room and kitchen shelf-units to school lockers in the blink of an eye.

I’m sure that the rest of the score (I loved “Biology”), like that of “Next to Normal,” grows on one with additional hearings (the cast album release was Feb. 10). Emily Rebholz’s costumes are eye candy, and so is Howell Binkley’s lighting, all enhanced by Kai Harada and Brian Ronan’s sound design, which seamlessly integrates singers, ensembles and nine-piece union orchestra.

Inhabiting one another’s skin leads mother and daughter to the truth and the importance and love in their relationship. This underlies all the comedy and glitz in this warm, appreciable musical.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

 

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