Review: FREAKY FRIDAY (San Diego Musical Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on March 25, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


On the weekend of her mother’s everything-must-be-perfect second wedding, teenager Ellie (Rivers Harris) is in a funk: little brother Fletcher (John Perry Wishchuk), who talks through puppets, is driving her crazy; mother Katherine (Cassie Bleher) is bossing everyone around; her fiancé Mike (CJ Ravine) is trying too hard to get along; and, worst of all, everyone at school is fixated on the ultimate scavenger hunt, led by the boy that Ellie is crushing on … and Mom won’t let her go.

A confrontation between mother and daughter occurs and — shazam — the mother and daughter leap into the other’s body — personality and all — leading to chaos as they have to act in each other’s stead as student and wedding planner. What, that doesn’t happen when you get emotional? Relax and go with it. There’s a lot of precedent.

The notion of switching bodies must enamor us because the list of movies including this phenomenon is long: Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin in All of Me (1984), George Burns and Charlie Schlatter in 18 Again (1988), and Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds in The Change Up (2011), just to name a few. Perhaps the best known, though, is the one from Disney that continues to reincarnate: Freaky Friday.

Originally a 1973 novel by Mary Rodgers (daughter of composer Richard Rodgers), the 1976 family comedy starring Barbara Harris and a young Jodie Foster was remade in 2003 with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan. This fun magical tale eventually morphed into the current musical, with book by Bridget Carpenter and music/lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. The two leads in the original show, Heidi Bickerstaff and Emma Hunton, stayed with it through numerous runs in 2016-2017 (including six weeks at the La Jolla Playhouse) with hopes for Broadway.  These hopes, however, never materialized.

Let not the rulers of Broadway fate keep you from thinking this show is lacking, however. Carpenter’s book is witty throughout and manages to tie up every plot-line in a satisfying manner. There is a feeling that she must have thought, “There’s so much story to tell that I just can’t waste any time on the characters disbelieving that their father/late-husband had a magical hourglass, so let’s just all agree that they’ll accept this easily so the plot can continue.” But once you let go of the “Whuuuhh?,” Carpenter is easily forgiven.

As terrifically amusing as the script is, even that is slightly surpassed by Kitt and Yorkey’s lyrics, which are delightful and do a great job of both advancing the plot and letting us in on the inner feelings of the characters. Equally good are the tunes that accompany the words, greatly overcoming the frequent lament nowadays of, “I enjoyed the show, but there wasn’t one tune that sticks in your head.” I had to work not to leave with “Just One Day,” “I Got This,” or “Today and Ev’ry Day” stuck in my head. It is rare for this reviewer to go straight home from the theater and download an entire cast album and listen frequently.

This brings us to San Diego Musical Theatre, which defines this outing as a “pre-professional production,” meaning that the cast is filled with hopefuls between 12 and 20 who are given the chance to be in a professional style production. The talent is unquestionably there. In particular, Cassie Bleher, playing a woman in her 40s has a particular challenge: Unlike Ms. Bickerstaff who was truly in her 40s in the same role, Ms. Bleher is a teenager who is playing a 40-year-old who is possessed by the spirit of a teenager … but cannot play the role as her own age or the humor will be lost! So she has to pull off being an older person acting too young. Does she pull it off? Actually, yes, pretty darned well. But through no fault of her own, a bit of the humor is lost in not seeing a more age-appropriate face on the mother. Put simply, I would love to see Bleher in this role again in 25 years, especially with her lovely voice on the touching, “After All of This and Everything”.

Meanwhile, 15 year old Rivers Harris does a fine job appearing to be controlled by the mind of Mom and holds her own vocally, bringing lots of life to numbers like “I’m Not Myself Today” and “No More Fear.” At times, though, especially in the opening “Just One Day” and in Harris’s “Oh Biology,” the band is a bit too loud to make out the fast-paced words of the songs.

No one expects the production values here to match La Jolla’s, yet SDMT’s current offering is definitely worth it, particularly to support this bright young cast who are way beyond “high school musical” status. As a bonus, tickets are priced at $15 to $25 to entice you to give these young folks a chance, so this is a slam-dunk easy choice for a nice night out.

photos by Ken Jacques Photography

Freaky Friday
San Diego Musical Theatre
Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave
Wed & Thurs at 7; Fri & Sat 8; Sun at 2
ends on March 31, 2019
for tickets, call 858.560.5740 or visit SDMT

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