Behind This Whimsical Story is a Moral Lesson-A Review of Disney’s Freaky Friday

It’s been nearly 14 years since Disney’s second remake of “Freaky Friday,” a film starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan was released in movie theaters. Now, Disney Theatrical Productions is bringing the fantasy-comedy to life for a limited run at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California. The stage adaptation of Mary Rodgers original novel and subsequent 1976 and 2003 feature films were jam-packed with an assortment of highs and a few surprising lows.

Ellie is a typical 16-year-old moody teenager, filled with angst due to her uppity and overbearing mother, Katherine and annoying little brother, Fletcher (Jake Heston Miller). More frustration is added in part to Katherine’s upcoming wedding to fiancé, Mike (David Jennings) and Ellie’s unresolved feelings of her father’s death a few years prior.

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The exemplary cast is by far one of the best I’ve seen. This production stars Broadway veterans Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton, both superb vocalists and actors. They take on the roles of Katherine and Ellie Blake, the mother and daughter duo whom magically exchange bodies for a 24-hour period.

The new book by Bridget Carpenter did seem – rushed – all too evident in the first scene. The show’s opener “Just One Day” setups the entire backstory leading up to the body switch, which happens almost immediately following the number. The result – character development is lost.

Additionally, some of the comedic dialogue felt callow. Although, others like in the number “Busted,” which rendered the line: “it should be available year around” – in reference to the seasonal treat – candy corn gathered huge chuckles from the audience.

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s score ranged from pop-rock to emotional ballads. The vocal embellishments of Blickenstaff and Hunton in the bluesy-soul infused “Bring My (Baby) Brother Home” and Blickenstaff’s act two show-stopper “After All of This and Everything” is of Tony-Award winning caliber. Unfortunately, a few songs fell into the lackluster category and not even a fine performance by Chris Ramirez (Adam) could save the nonsensical number “Women and Sandwiches,” surely penned as an afterthought.

Blickenstaff, who has starred in Broadway’s Something Rotten, The Addams Family and Disney’s The Little Mermaid has a beautiful soprano voice. Her vocals are perfect for the songs, fitting as she (and Hunton) are the originators in their respective roles. Her energy – lively and her performance – well, if I’m being honest left me teary-eyed once…OK, twice during her touching scenes.

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While switched, Katherine and Ellie experience each other’s physical, social and personal struggles and start becoming more appreciative and understanding in this character arc. Several mishaps also occur, which forces mother and daughter to re-evaluate the relationships with colleagues, teachers, friends and peers as well.

Hunton, who has starred in Broadway’s Spring Awakening and Wicked also provides a touching performance with unparalleled vocals. Though, her big solo “No More Fear” was less gripping than Blickenstaff’s, the positive anthem delivers a poignant message of its own.

Surprisingly, Disney pushed the envelope with this “curse-free, family-friendly…” musical, referencing cigarettes, drug paraphernalia, STDs and most startlingly, an added scene where Ellie and her friends strip down to their undies in order to win “The Hunt” (a digital scavenger hunt) – necessary? Not really.

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The story does eventually find its niche and the pitfalls plaguing the first act works itself out. We are also reminded that behind this whimsical story is a moral lesson about family, togetherness, self-acceptance and love. In the end, once Katherine and Ellie accept this, the spell is suddenly reversed.

At this time, Disney has no plans on transferring the show to Broadway, however, a digital cast recording will be released on February 10th. Disney’s Freaky Friday is back for a whole new generation to embrace, but only for a limited time.

Disney’s “Freaky Friday” is playing at The La Jolla Playhouse now through March 12, 2017. Tickets are available by calling the box office at (858) 550-1010 or Order Online.

Photos courtesy of Jim Carmody

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