How about changing places for a day to see how someone else experiences the world?
Inspired by Mary Rodgers’ 1972 novel and two Disney films (the most recent with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis), The Alley Theatre presents a musical version of a mother and daughter’s wild ride of a day as they change bodies and are forced to understand each other’s lives. As Artistic Director Gregory Boyd explains, it is a “fantastic spin on a unique tale of self-recognition” with a reimagined book by Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) along with the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Brian Yorkey (lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music).
Heidi Blickenstaff stars as the perfectionist mother, Katherine, who runs a sort of Martha Stewart-esque catering business and doubles as widowed mother to pre-teen Fletcher and teenage Ellie (so well-played by Emma Hunton). Katherine is in the pressure-cooker of preparing for her second wedding to fiancé Mike (David Jennings) while also catering the whole affair to be featured on the cover of a wedding magazine.
Ellie is a struggling teenager with her own share of pressures: grades, boys, looks. Perfectionist Katherine and Hot Mess Ellie mysteriously utter their desires to change places with each other while holding a magical hourglass that Katherine’s deceased husband had given to them as a present, and, voila, the two change places.
Set in a present-day suburb of Chicago, moving sets featuring everything from Katherine’s kitchen to the local high school to a Chicago bus stop serve as a brilliant backdrop to intersecting plot lines. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic designs meld well with Howell Binkley’s inspired lighting to bolster the vibrant visual experience. Scene changes are a model of efficiency, coming full circle in numbers such as “Busted” where a high school locker is juxtaposed with a kitchen cabinet as mother and daughter discover evidence of the secrets they keep.
It is something to behold as Blickenstaff transmogrifies from a control-freak mother and business woman into her sloppy and mixed-up daughter. For me, her performance stole the show as she channeled considerable comic talents beyond the lines of dialogue and song into even the subtlest physical movements. That's partially thanks to Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, which is not only clever, but effectively aids in revealing the inner feelings of each character as they struggle through the experience of being in each other’s shoes. The ensemble dance numbers (especially with the high schoolers) were also witty and even employed some fun and dramatic slo-mo portions.
It’s true that Freaky Friday has an outrageous story line that forces us to suspend our disbelief in a big way—but the show is not (as is the case with many musicals) all fun and games. One of the most moving musical moments in the show is Ellie singing in Katherine’s body to younger brother Fletcher (who has had so much angst during this weird day he has even tried to run away). In the number “After All of This and Everything,” Ellie’s spirit sings to Fletcher how much she loves him even though it seems like everything is falling apart. Audience members literally said “Awwwwww…” during this moving and sentimental moment.
From the opening number (“Just One Day”) until the finale, Freaky Friday never lags and entertains with a message without being overly didactic. While the leads dominate the show, there is talented support all around, especially with Chris Ramirez playing the high school heartthrob Adam and Jake Heston Miller as the young puppet-wielding Fletcher. Also notable is Jessie Hooker as the mean girl Savannah. However, the main thing is that Hunton and Blickenstaff can really sing—and that sets this “freaky” and fun Friday apart from its source material.
This is a musical with catchy songs played by a real orchestra —some of them good enough to stand alone without the backdrop of the story. But, as Blickenstaff suggests in her interview featured in the show’s program, the story is the most important part: “I think audiences walk out of the theatre holding each other a little bit tighter… Ultimately, this is a about a mother and daughter who have lost each other, and in this crazy day end up finding each other again and reigniting their love for one another and their respect and their compassion.”
She's definitely onto something with that; the standing ovation said it all. This is an original musical send-up of trading places that reminds us that we have more in common emotionally than our physical circumstances might suggest.
Thru July 2. Tickets from $10. Hubbard Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. (713) 220-5700. More info at alleytheatre.org.