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Review: Disney's FREAKY FRIDAY Makes Strong Premiere at Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre is very much at the forefront of developing new musicals and this time around it is doing so in collaboration with Disney Theatricals. Based on Mary Rodgers' novel and the two movies of the same name, the world premiere stage adaptation of Disney's Freaky Friday features some of Broadway and television's best creative talent, two extremely strong leads, and an infectiously energetic ensemble cast. The musical's appeal isn't only limited to the target teenage/millennial crowd. Any fan of contemporary musical theatre is likely to find something to appreciate in this adorable (but not cloyingly so) show.

When we meet Ellie Blake (Emma Hunton), she's ready to tell us her story of what really happened when she switched bodies with her control freak mother Katherine (Heidi Blickenstaff). Katherine insists on interrupting the story to compel Ellie to fix her messy hair and clothes. This annoys Ellie. It's clear that the mother and daughter duo are at odds with one another right down to their styling choices (Emily Rebholz designed the costumes).

The question is why are they at odds? As "must-do-it-all" perfectionist Katherine prepares for her wedding to Mike (Alan H. Green), Ellie feels like she's being ignored and she's not too happy about the remarriage either. Ellie is particularly distraught when she learns that Katherine sold one of a pair of hourglasses that her now deceased father bought for them. Something strange happens as the two physically struggle over the remaining hourglass. Ellie's spirit/being becomes trapped in Katherine's adult body, and Katherine's spirit/being becomes trapped in Ellie's. Faced with new circumstances, Ellie must navigate the trials and tribulations of being a soon-to-be-married single parent to a teenager and a precocious ten-year-old (Fletcher, played at this performance by the positively adorable and talented Jake Heston Miller) and a small business owner. Katherine must return to the strange world that is high school - cliques, mean girls (Savannah, capably played by the small-but-mighty Storm Lever), and all - and take part in a scavenger hunt all around Chicago with Ellie's friends Gretchen (Katie Ladner) and Hannah (DC's own Shayna Blass). This scavenger hunt, if successful, may hold the key to ending the switch if the second hourglass can be found.

As a result of the switch, both Ellie and Katherine truly learn what it's like to be the other person. Secrets are uncovered, hidden emotions/feelings are revealed, and each gains a better appreciation for the other. While the switch is difficult for the both of them, it provides a real opportunity to move beyond the pain and anger that has divided them since Ellie's dad died. A relationship that was once fractured has the potential to develop further and past wounds can finally begin to heal.

Bridget Carpenter's book packages this story in a tight and interesting way, which also showcases the varied talents of a diverse set of performers. The fresh language that she employs is likely to resonate with Ellie's contemporaries in the audience (teenagers/college students), but is also sophisticated enough that those of us that have long been out of school are bound to find a witty turn of phrase or two to appreciate. While I would have liked to learn more about Ellie and Katherine before the switch happens, Carpenter manages to succeed with character development (including backstories) in the scenes where each lives the other's life. She has two equally strong, capable actresses to support this endeavor. Brian Yorkey's lyrics are a key ingredient for this success. As in Next to Normal and If/Then, he proves that he's a master of not only writing lyrics that are specific to a character experiencing a certain situation, but also furthering the story. Blickenstaff and Hutton interpret them in a wholly believable way as does the rest of the cast, especially J. Elaine Marcos as Katherine's equally neurotic, yet capable assistant Torrey. She has a knack for comedy without being too over-the-top.

The strength of Yorkey's lyrics is matched by the strength of his collaborator Tom Kitt's music, enhanced by Kitt and Michael Starobin's orchestrations. The general vibe has a lot in common with his previous musicals -I think I heard a few melodies from Next to Normal and If/Then in the show - but all of his music selections very much fit the tone of the show, but also the specific scene/character. There are many songs that could be described as standard mid-tempo contemporary showtune fare, but I don't mean this as a slight. They are all equally strong. There are also other numbers, such as "Bring my Baby (Brother) Home," that have more of a jazz/R&B vibe, and really let the two leading ladies - and especially Heidi Blickenstaff - showcase their tremendous range and high belting prowess.

While the creative team might consider some cuts if the musical is developed further - the seemingly incessant jokes about Ellie's love interest Adam (the endearing Jason Gotay) for one - the creative foundation is decidedly solid. Beyond the book, lyrics, and music, the production - superbly directed by Christopher Ashley - has a number of other strong technical assets. Here, I would be remiss not to mention Sergio Trujillo's energetic and very teenage-appropriate choreography (superbly executed by the cast) and the nine musicians that highlight the strength of Tom Kitt's music.

All in all, Disney's Freaky Friday delivers a fun night of theater-going.

Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes, including one intermission.

Disney's FREAKY FRIDAY plays at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA - through November 20. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 703-820-9771.

Pictured: Emma Hunton and Heidi Blickenstaff in FREAKY FRIDAY. Photo by Margot Schulman.

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