Freaky Friday Arrives at the Alley With Updated Story and Transcendent Casting

Emma Hunton and Chris Ramirez in Disney's Freaky Friday.
Emma Hunton and Chris Ramirez in Disney's Freaky Friday. Photo by Jim Carmody
You need to see the world through other people’s eyes if you ever hope to fully grasp the challenges they face. Only once we truly understand another person in this manner can we exhibit the empathy and love that person deserves. It’s this notion that comedic musical Freaky Friday, the mother-daughter, one-day body-swap story, is selling.

It’s not a bad message for modern pre-teens (the obvious target market of the show) to hear. After all, it was a decent message when Mary Rodgers wrote the best-selling book in 1972. When Disney turned the novel into a Golden Globe-nominated movie in 1976 starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, the generation gap/walk in another person’s shoes message still seemed on track. And sure, it was a notion that worked well enough in 2003 when Disney remade the movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan.

But what about today? With racial, religious and political divides dominating our news feeds, even among our young adult population, certainly a story about understanding someone else’s truth is vital. But should that message be delivered via a narrative between a well-enough-off white mother and her equally white daughter, as is the case in this production? Is this the big divide that our teens and their nostalgic parents need to consider at this moment as they bop in their seats to, and laugh their way through, a story about an important lesson learned?

Big red flags of why now, and if now why this treatment, seem to wave from the rafters as we take our seats at the Alley Theatre’s new production (in association with La Jolla Playhouse and Cleveland Play House). However, it soon becomes apparent that while Freaky Friday (book by Bridget Carpenter, music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) may give us present pause in timing, it delivers well in the bouncy-fun category.

Smartly, Carpenter ( Friday Night Lights TV veteran) has updated the story with cell phones and modern teen vernacular while not straying far away from what fans remember and want. Recent Widow Katherine (Heidi Blickenstaff) and her 16-year-old daughter, Ellie (Emma Hunton), don’t see eye to eye on anything. Arguing about rules and dress and who’s being unfair to whom, the pair is in constant tension. Tension that’s ramped up to 11 as Katherine is just a day away from marrying Mike (Dave Jennings), a sweet man who suffers Ellie’s misplaced wrath because she's missing her recently deceased father.

When a magical hourglass causes mother and daughter to switch bodies, the pair at first revel in the change. Ellie is thrilled to take on her mother’s no-brainer role of bossing people around at her catering business, and Katherine is relieved to put her business and wedding stresses aside to go back to the relative ease of attending school. But of course, soon enough they come to realize just how hard it is to be in the other’s position. The family-friendly, curse-free and wholesome musical that unfolds finds the pair in myriad comedic situations designed to open their eyes to the beauty of each other.

The score by Kitt and Yorkey (of Next to Normal) remains mostly upbeat throughout, with a reliance on poppy, blues-ish numbers to get the crowd going. “Busted” gives us a wildly funny account of parents and kids uncovering the secrets they keep from each other. When Ellie mishandles her new role parenting role younger brother Fletcher, causing him to run away, we are treated to the howling, raise-the-roof showstopper “Bring My (Baby) Brother Home.”

But while many of the songs stand strong, often the lyrics lack fizz. “But the drag keeps on dragging,” Ellie redundantly complains of her mother’s nagging in “Just One Day.” “Women and Sandwiches,” a song that attempts to rhyme “a woman surprises” with “burger and fries,” similarly gets an eye roll. And why not incorporate the styles of music Ellie and her friends would actually be listening to? Director Christopher Ashley may have taken the care to give  Ellie's hair shocking pink streaks and dress her like a grunge kid, but not one note out of her mouth reflects that aesthetic or her generation.

But with such a high-energy cast (that to the production’s credit does include a large number of performers of color, including Mike, the man Katherine is to marry) and two knock out leads, it’s fairly easy to overlook some of the musical’s less than perfect elements.

As Katherine, the sweet yet powerfully soulful voiced Blickenstaff has a riotous time impersonating a moody and hormonal teenager and trying to pass as an adult. We probably could have done without all the snot wiping, but the jangly limbs, high fives and the annoyed whatever tone are carried off with terrific comic flare.

Hunton as Katherine has a narrower task playing an uptight, overly controlling adult, but she too brings out the laughs with ill-timed attempts at teen speak such as the “S’up?” she erroneously throws at heartthrob Adam (Chris Ramirez) at the end of their conversation. This in combination with her strong set of pipes ensures she equally shines on stage.

But it’s the casting of Hunton as Ellie that’s really the star of the show and does the most to take Freaky Friday into a relevant realm. In the opening number, Ellie offhandedly complains that her mother (who is constantly on a diet) might like her more if she were thinner. I can’t say for sure if that lyric was written after casting the beautifully average-sized Hunton or if she was cast in type for the role, but either way it’s excitingly refreshing.

Not because Freaky Friday devolves into an exploration of female anxieties about weight. In fact women’s bodies are celebrated in the somewhat ill-conceived scene that has teenage girls stripping down to bras and undies for selfies to rejoice in their womanly figures. (Um – didn’t anyone think that encouraging girls to take semi-nude digital photos, regardless of the motivation, is a bad idea?) It’s exciting because even though Freaky Friday can’t lead us to understand what it's like to walk in your culturally diverse neighbor’s shoes, at least it can give us a heroine that many pre-teens can look at and say, hey, my body looks like that. Look how Ellie is owning it. Look how her mother celebrates it. Look how the hot guy she has a crush on digs her too.

In the end, Freaky Friday may not be the fully woke musical we and our young teenagers need right now. But that doesn’t mean that good is the enemy of perfect here. When we leave the theater entertained, exposed to a diverse cast, with a message that espouses empathy and a lead who purposefully transcends the waif-like casting that traditionally has fulfilled the role, maybe it’s not a bad thing to take our kids to after all.

Freaky Friday runs through July 2 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $26-$103.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman