Review: ‘Freaky Friday’ at Signature Theatre

In its world premiere at Signature Theatre, the musical Freaky Friday is a warm, sweet, accomplished family-friendly confection with a progressive message. It is a contemporary musical about empowerment, personal growth and dealing with, if not over-coming, family struggles powered by a driving, mostly pop-rock score with terrific popping up-to-date street move choreography.

Jason Gotay (Adam) with Robert Walters, Tanisha Moore, Thaddeus McCants, Julian Ramos, Katie Ladner, and Shayna Blass. Photo by Jim Saah.
Jason Gotay (Adam) with Robert Walters, Tanisha Moore, Thaddeus McCants, Julian Ramos, Katie Ladner, and Shayna Blass. Photo by Jim Saah.

Under the direction of Christopher Ashley, Freaky Friday should bring knowing smiles to all those aging children in the Signature audience who are open to remembering their own days battling the demons of trying to fit-in with high school trauma and drama, while living with parents who are really just so stupid.

The production should also strike a chord with current youthful audiences who may want to experience life beyond a digital device’s screen (or the parents or grandparents who suggest they do and pay for theater tickets).

An item to note is the pedigree of the Freaky Friday creative team. There is book writer Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights and Parenthood), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning duo of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal and If/Then ). The energetic choreography is by Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) with music supervision by Bryan Perri (Wicked)

The starting point for this new musical is the 1972 novel by Mary Rodgers that was later made into movies by Walt Disney Motion Pictures.  This world premiere musical was developed by Disney Theatrical Productions “expressly for licensing to theatres” according to a Signature Theatre press release.

Freaky Friday takes off with the uttering of this line near the top of the show, “I’m not myself today.” With some theater magic, a teen age daughter and mom have now exchanged bodies. Off this show goes on its merry way with musical numbers such as “I Got This” and “What You Got” as initial fuel.

And who are these two; single mom (Katherine) and her teen daughter (Ellie)? Well, the audience meets a put-upon, full of angst, worrier teenage daughter (a loveable Emma Hunton who nails the role as she grows to understand that a parent may not be as she lets on; totally in control).  And there is the over-extended single mom (the great Heidi Bickenstaff in a bravura performance from exasperated over-the-top and sassy gestures -with arms outstretched and the nervous laughter and wobbling on her heels with scrunched toes- just like my own daughter did) who was hoping to have her big break. Oh, and mom’s remarriage is only a day away; she is catering her own reception.

Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and Emma Hunton (Ellie Blake). Photo by Jim Saah.
Heidi Blickenstaff (Katherine Blake) and Emma Hunton (Ellie Blake). Photo by Jim Saah.

As a musical, Freaky Friday has a simple arc. With only one day to try to correct things before a wedding, mother and daughter must work together to reverse the magic that has the teen in her mom’s body living the life of her drill sergeant mom, and the Mom in her daughter’s body, trying to make her way in the world of a high school. This is no “Bring Your Daughter to Work” day at all.

Along the way, the production shows off the singing and acting talents of Jason Gotay (as Adam – a dreamboat – though at first seemingly a dim bulb of a high school love interest. Over time he changes course –  delivering some of the more thought, deeply poignant lines of empowerment dialogue and a song (“Go”) that brought thunderous applause the evening I saw the show. He also takes the spotlight singing what is best described as a male attitude ditty entitled, “Women and Sandwiches.”  Yup, that’s the title.

As fiancée Mike, Alan H Green plays a character who is not quite believable. He thinks he knows the characters who are going through their swapped bodies routine. As Fletcher, Jake Heston is an ace as the irascible younger brother who finds comfort in the love of his family even after he is told through a song called “Parents Lie that life is difficult and parents are not to be always trustworthy. The song is sung to him without a shred of irony.

There are a dozen others in the spirited production who have some time in the limelight, including Signature regulars like the talented Sherri L. Edelen and Bobby Smith. Both are enjoying themselves cavorting about the stage as various sorts of comic Tim Conway-type characters.

Set design by Beowulf Boritt, Emily Rebholz’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting, sound design from Brian Ronan and Kai Harada add to the teen spirit of the production.

Freaky Friday certainly is carefully crafted and not meant to offend. You know things are going to work out, but you enjoy the journey. It is not full of sub-text, or irony but rather performed with good-natured “duh” and “what’s up” and “OMG” moments along with some darker scenes so that the brightness does not blind the audience. Memorable tunes and lyrics are not what Freaky Friday is about. Rather, it is its overall attitude toward its characters and the audience. It wants to be pleasing and succeeds.

So feel free to make yourself happy at Freaky Friday for a couple of hours without apology. Freaky Friday may have a rose-colored glasses, dewy-eyed outlook along with a steady flow of wholesomeness and a happy ending, but given these current turbulent times in America, it’s good for us to have it here at Signature right now. I enjoyed the escape from the outside world into a place with “No More Fear.” 

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

Freaky Friday plays through Sunday, November 20, 2016, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them here.

Note: The musical is recommended for ages 8 and up.