Theater Review: "Freaky Friday"

Emma Hunton (left) and Heidi Blickenstaff in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of Disney’s "Freaky Friday,"
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

What kid hasn’t wished for adulthood – especially after being denied something by Mom? 

But be careful what you wish for. The exasperation of teenager Ellie’s “Mom!” wail turns to an anguished cry for “Mommy!” after the two exchange places for a chaotic day in “Freaky Friday,” playing through March 12 at La Jolla Playhouse.

The pop/rock musical – based on Mary Rodgers’ book and two previous films of that title – is directed by Christopher Ashley, who also directed the world premiere at Virginia’s Signature Theatre.

Now he’s brought it home in a sparkling co-production with Cleveland Playhouse and Houston’s Alley Theatre.

The original powerhouse mom-daughter duo – Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton – is here to reprise their roles as mom Katherine and daughter Ellie Blake.

Katherine is a caterer, whose business has fallen on slim times.

Ellie is 16, bright, a little chunky and “average.” She has two girlfriends and a crush on the impossibly cool Adam (but everyone has a crush on Adam).

Ellie’s dad died four years ago, and Katherine is about to marry Mike (David Jennings), a contractor and very nice guy.

To kickstart her career, Katherine has agreed to cater her own wedding, which is being covered by “Weddings Magazine.” The event is tomorrow. Last-minute plans are, shall we say, not going as smoothly as desired.

Meanwhile, Ellie and her friends Hannah (Sumi Yu) and Gretchen (Jennafer Newberry) plan to enter the Hunt, a crazy scavenger hunt laid out by Adam. Katherine has forbidden Ellie to do this, but she plans to anyway.

Then the freaky thing happens: they change identities, just in time for all the “normal” madness to really complicate things.

Oh yes, there’s one more thing: Ellie is about to flunk 11th grade because of excessive absence (she’s missed Spanish class 17 times), and there’s a mandatory parent-teacher-counselor-student conference this afternoon.

Bridget Carpenter’s clever, funny and sometimes moving script wonderfully captures the emotional (and literal) hysteria of the situation before, made worse (and funnier) after the change. 

And the mostly upbeat, sometimes corny songs –  by “Next To Normal” team Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics) – reflect the craziness. You can’t help but identify with Ellie, who in “Just One Day” sings “All I ask is for 12 hours to live life my way.”

Then there’s the odd but somehow endearing conflation of “Women And Sandwiches,” which notes that “they’re more complicated than burgers and fries – or guys.”

In a more serious vein, Katherine encourages growing up and self-reliance in the simple but affecting ballad “Parents Lie,” which points out that “they lie when they tell you they’ll always be there.”

Blickenstaff and Hunton own these parts, not just literally because they are their original creators, but vocally. Their voices have an uncanny resemblance – and they’re both terrific.

Jake Heston Miller is terrific as Ellie’s 10-year-old brother Fletcher (who has a purple hippo puppet named Angry Bob) – wise beyond his years (and sometimes wiseacre as well) but always adorable.

David Jennings is patient and kindly as Katherine’s soon-to-be-husband Mike, navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of Ellie’s ache for her father and Katherine’s near hysteria with aplomb.

The rest of the large cast is equally fine, as is the most excellent nine-member orchestra led by Andrew Graham which plays behind an onstage scrim.

Beowulf Boritt’s set has a decided contempo look, as do Emily Rebholz’s costumes and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography. Howell Binkley’s lighting design is excellent as well.

There is a serious underpinning to the rather silly premise here, with messages about walking in someone else’s shoes and the importance of family, but mostly this is a story about a mother and daughter – estranged in the way teens and parents often are – who find each other again.

Don’t be fooled by the title. “Freaky Friday” is a goofy story that also packs an emotional punch.

The details

“Freaky Friday” plays through March 19, 2017 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org