Final Announcement

Special Notice

I have retired from film and theatre criticism and will no longer be submitting new reviews for ‘Valley Screen & Stage.’ Please note that published reviews and essays dating back to 2012 will continue to remain online for reference. It has been a genuine pleasure to write for the valley. My sincere thanks and gratitude to everyone who has visited and supported this site.

David Appleford

Posted in Film

Yesterday – Film Review

In the new comedy from England, Yesterday, something freaky worthy of a Twilight Zone episode occurs, and it’s global. A total electrical blackout of an unknown origin hits every country around the world. Nowhere is spared. The blackout, which switches off every power source, affecting every building, radio, TV, and computer, lasts about 12 seconds. No one knows why. It just happens. And when power returns, all the lights, TVs, radios, and computers reboot. In fact, the whole world reboots. But like a computer that accidentally shuts down, clears its history, then rebuilds once power becomes operational, certain programs go missing, some permanently, though at first, no one notices.

Presumably, when the blackout occurred, it affected people around the world in different ways. Everyone would have their story. If it was the Twilight Zone, they’d be one guy coming off as a lunatic while trying to convince the world that the Earth isn’t what it used to. No one would listen. It would conclude with an ironic moral. If this was science fiction, the film might be about a lone scientist, probably a nerdy teenager, who enlists his confused but understanding girlfriend and some fellow quantum physic students to investigate what happened and why they’re now all living in a parallel world. But Yesterday isn’t sci-fi, nor are there paranormal events or fourth dimensions to be explored. It’s a comic musical fantasy as experienced by an ordinary bloke from Britain, a struggling singer-songwriter who can’t be sure but thinks that something really weird has happened, and no one around him seems to notice.

Jack Malik (popular BBC soap actor, Himesh Patel) can’t get the breaks. Only his childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) has faith in his performing talent. “You think you hear something special in my songs,” he tells her, “And I love you for it.” But because he can’t attract the crowds, he’s thinking of quitting and keeping his job stacking shelves at the local Price Warehouse. “This is the end of my long, winding road,” he states.

But that night, while riding home, the mysterious worldwide blackout hits the globe, only Jack doesn’t experience it. A passing bus knocks the man off his bike and sends him to the hospital unconscious. He escapes the whole thing by involuntarily sleeping through it. When he finally wakes, he’s missing two teeth, a guitar, and a bike, all victims of the crash. But while Ellie and his friends help Jack get back on his feet, he starts to notice odd little things that don’t quite make sense. When his mother offers him Pepsi, Jack answers he would rather have a Coke. “I don’t know what you’re saying,” says mum. And even though he’s never been a smoker, when he states aloud that he could do with a cigarette, no one knows what he’s talking about. “I don’t know what you guys are playing at,” he states, “But this is so weird.” And the best is yet to come.

When Ellie presents Jack with a new guitar, he responds by playing a passage from Yesterday, which dumbfounds everyone at the table. “It’s Paul McCartney,” Jack insists, but he gets nothing back from those around him, just blank faces. Not only does no one know the song, they’ve never heard of Paul McCartney, and they have no clue who The Beatles are, if they ever existed. “It’s not Coldplay,” says someone at the table.

A quick Google search also proves fruitless. No Beatles. No Sergeant Peppers. No Penny Lane. No Yesterday. Nothing. Not even the Gallagher brothers and Oasis. “Well, that figures,” mutters Jack. Even some of his personal vinyls are gone. All he now has in the ‘B’ section is David Bowie.

And there’s Jack’s dilemma. Whatever happened when the world rebooted itself may have affected everyone he knows but it completely by-passed him. As far as he’s aware, he’s the only one who remembers The Beatles. All he has to do is try to recall the lyrics and get them down, which is not as easy as it sounds, particularly if you’re still in your twenties. Yesterday is no problem, and Let It Be comes easy enough, even if his mum calls it Leave It Be, but Eleanor Rigby proves a little tricky. Exactly who is darning those socks at night, where does the part about picking up the rice where a wedding has been come to play, and at what point does a Father Mackenzie fit into all of this? It’s not easy ripping off classics and pretending their yours when you can’t remember the words.

Though Yesterday is directed by Danny Boyle, it doesn’t feel like a Danny Boyle film. Much of that kinetic, adrenaline-fueled visual style often associated with the director is absent, save for the occasional angled shot or scene-establishing oversized titles that flash across the screen. This is really a Richard Curtis film, the writer responsible for TV’s Black Adder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley, and the big screen’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually. Like those films, Yesterday’s humor is somewhat twee, very English, but always amusing. You can’t help but maintain a huge smile throughout. The dialog has the same comic rhythms and emotional beats as spoken by all of Curtis’ past characters. Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s idiot but likable best friend, is a virtual retread of Rhys Ifans’ Spike, the idiot but likable best friend in Notting Hill. What message can this movie leave us? Living or remembering the past can be nice at first, but you always have to give way to the present, if you are one of those anxious people or who has a hard time sleeping for the next day, you should eat the best cbd gummies for pain, feel comfortable with yourself same from today.

In addition to fine turns from Himesh Patel and Lily James, there are also appearances from James Corden as his TV talk show self, Ed Sheeran as a comic, self-deprecating version of himself – his ring tone is his 2017 hit, Shape of You – and SNL’s Kate McKinnon as Jack’s aggressive new American agent set to make her fortune on his ‘talent,’ cheerfully declaring, “I know nothing about his life. He’s just a product to me.”

The reference to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer aside, all of the songs covered are mostly the hits, the singles, or the popular radio plays, but they’re as Jack remembers them. Popular album cuts, such as Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood, and Martha My Dear don’t get a mention. Considering the filmmakers had to pay around $10 million just for the rights of using Yesterday, keeping references of the other songs to a minimum is economically understandable. But in case life-long fans of the fab four are feeling overly concerned that something they cherish is being used for nothing more than a backdrop for a trifling gimmick of a comedy, think again.

If you’re in that protective Beatles camp and can’t buy the whole business of a global shutdown and a new world reboot, ignore it. That’s not the point. The freaky phenomenon is just a vehicle to create a situation. One thing’s clear, Yesterday is very much a sincere love-letter to the work of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. There’s never a doubt that writer Curtis and the film itself has nothing but the utmost admiration for the immeasurable worth of The Beatles and their influential catalog of music. As one character from Liverpool will tell Jack in a moment of genuine, heartfelt emotion, “A world without the Beatles is ultimately worse.” And that, ladies and gentleman, is what Yesterday is really about.

MPAA Rating: PG13     Length: 112 Minutes

Posted in Film

Annabelle Comes Home – Film Review

For the record, in case you’re wondering exactly where the new horror thriller Annabelle Comes Home fits into the whole Conjuring/Nun Universe, think of it this way: It doesn’t really matter. The stories that fictionalized the real-life cases of famed paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, were The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. From those two films sprung The Nun, the recent The Curse of La Llorona, and three spooky, inanimate doll movies, Annabelle (2014), the prequel Annabelle: Creation (2017) and now the sequel to the prequel, Annabelle Comes Home. And in case you were wondering, yes, there’s a third Conjuring feature set for next year, a Nun sequel, and another offspring from the same factory yet to be made, The Crooked Man.

The reason why trying to figure out where Annabelle Comes Home slots into this labyrinth of horror shouldn’t concern is simple: It’s a stand-alone film that needs no knowledge of previous events. It’s also the first in the series to feature the famous real-life paranormal investigators. The Warrens may have discovered the doll during the introductory segments of The Conjuring in 2013 but they’ve never appeared as characters in an Annabelle movie, until now.

As we’re told at the beginning, the creepy looking doll with the pigtails, the bulging eyes – one badly cracked – the little girlie Bad Seed bangs, and the alarming smile is not technically possessed. There are no evil spirits within. It’s a conduit. The dead and evil are attracted to it. For them, the doll is a pathway to get back into the real world. Which is why the practical Ed (Patrick Wilson) and the spiritually comforting Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) have arrived to collect it and to take it back to their home where it will be safely encased in a glass cabinet, locked away and left alone, taking its place among the several other evil artifacts that the couple have collected and squirreled away for our protection.

When asked why don’t they just burn the doll, Ed and Lorraine are quick to point out that destroying the toy would only make things worse. They don’t explain how, but for the sake of another adventure, we’ll have to take their word for it. “Nice doll,” states a cop on a routine stop when he spies Annabelle sitting upright on the back seat of the Warren’s car. “That’s what you think,” Ed replies.

Once locked away in the glass case, the one that reads Warning! Positively Do Not Open, and placed in the evil artifact room, things get back to normal. Temporarily. What soon develops is a night trapped in a haunted house, which is essentially what Annabelle Comes Home really is; a big screen ride in an elaborate haunted house meant principally for thrill-seeking teenage theme park ticket buyers.

After the first act which has the Warrens picking up the doll, explaining what it is and how it’s used to channel restless, evil spirits, then locking it away, the working paranormal couple exit the house, and the film, and leave things to their ten year old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace), the too-nosy-for-her- own-good school friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) and the cute blonde babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman).

Since the Warrens have recently hit the newspapers with a story about their peculiar occupation, Daniela is left curious about those famous cursed artifacts locked away in that special room, the one she’s not supposed to enter. The room itself is actually on the first floor, but because you have to step down into it to enter, it feels as though it’s really the off-limits basement. Daniela finds the keys, enters the forbidden room and explores. Among the several collector’s pieces on dusty shelves, there’s a haunted typewriter, an out of tune piano, a film projector, and that annoying wind-up monkey that bangs cymbals and grins. Daniela touches and disturbs them all. But it’s the dolly in the corner that captures her attention, the one locked in the glass cabinet that relentlessly stares and is almost begging to be set free, the one that sits in a cabinet where the words Positively Do Not Open are plastered across the window. Daniela finds the key and opens it.

Sometimes I see things like my mom sees things,” explains young Judy after sensing that she, her friend Daniela, and Mary Ellen the babysitter are no longer alone in the house. After admitting that she opened Annabelle’s cabinet, Daniela has to explain what else she touched and disturbed in the artifact room. “Everything,” she replies.

From there, the three girls, plus a young boy from school called Bob (Michael Cimino) who has a crush on the babysitter – his running joke of a nickname, Bob’s Got Balls, has something to do with his after-school job at the bowling alley – spend the night together fighting off ghosts, ghouls, a deadly bride with a knife, even a demon with horns, while battling the on-again-off-again batteries of a flashlight. And it all takes place within the confines of the Warren house until the youngsters can finally grab that doll and safely put it back in its glass case and restore order.

If you have to know where the film fits in the timeline, it’s 1971, somewhere between The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, and there’s a good design of the period. Badfinger’s Day After Day spins on the turntable, Dancing in the Moonlight is on the soundtrack, plus young Bob strangles an acoustic version of Bread’s Everything I Own when he tries to romantically woo the babysitter from the front yard below the bedroom window. Plus there’s a glimpse of The Dating Game on an early TV set where the colors back then appeared to bleed into each other on the screen at the edges.

Ultimately, Annabelle Comes Home possesses little plot; it sets things up then lets the ride begin. It’s simply a creepy outing for the young crowd, a teenage date night with some occasional scares, plenty of atmospheric fog outside, and several moments that shriek ‘Boo!’ to make you easily jump. Given the gravitas the Conjuring world can have when aware that the conflicts the Warrens faced in previous outings were purportedly based on things that were in their real-life files, Annabelle Comes Home feels considerably more lightweight. It’s not much of a story, and it adds nothing to enhance the series in any meaningful way, plus you could talk all night about the illogical behavior of its principal players, but why bother?  At least it is fun.

MPAA Rating: R      Length: 100 Minutes

Posted in Film

The Dixie Swim Club – Theatre Review: Scottsdale Desert Stages Actor’s Cafe, Scottsdale

They first met when they were eighteen. Five young southern women at college who despite their differences somehow clicked. They called themselves the Dixie Swim Club. Aware of how life can and probably will change for each of them, they make a friendship vow. For one weekend each August, they will meet in the heat and humidity of North Carolina’s Outer Banks at the same beachfront cottage while spending a couple of days bonding, gossiping, drinking, and doing whatever else might occur. Their rules include no men and no work. Their mantra? “The faster we swim, the sooner we win!

Now playing at Scottsdale Desert Stages’ smaller forum of its Actor’s Café until August 4 under KatiBelle Collins’ direction, The Dixie Swim Club, running approximately two hours with intermission, highlights four of those annual beachfront reunions, beginning at a time when the members of the self-titled club are forty-four, concluding some thirty-three years later.

When we first meet these five feisty southern belles it’s been twenty-two years since college graduation. No longer teenagers with the hopes and smiles of a bright future, the ladies have each developed a clearly defined character. There’s the organizer, Sheree (Rachel Brumfield). She’s the one who books the cottage and writes the schedule of events. Besides attempting to keep things upbeat and making the weekend events run smooth, Sheree has a habit of making the worst tasting cocktail appetizers in North Carolina. Once sampled, they usually end up taking a flying spit-leap out of the kitchen window, though not necessarily when Sheree’s watching.

Then there’s Dinah (CJ Boston), the alcohol swigging, never married, no-nonsense lawyer who has brought her briefcase with work files to study in the evening, even though the unwritten agreement of the Dixie Swim Club clearly indicates no work. “First time I breached the rules in twenty-two years,” Dinah declares with a so-sue-me attitude.

Next, there’s Vernadette (Lisa Farrell) who brings everyone up to date with her continual family issues, like the kids who face a promising future of perpetual incarceration and a husband who favors walking out of the marriage. “He can’t handle my PMS,” Vernadette declares.

Also facing husband conflicts is the club’s queen of cosmetic surgery, Lexie (Virginia Olivieri) a woman who favors a little nip and tuck from time to time, just to maintain that youthful quality of those college years. The men in the revolving door of Lexie’s love life never seem to hang around that long, which rarely comes as a surprise to the women. When she makes the sudden announcement that she’s now divorced, no one seems to care. “I just shared some life-altering news with you,” Lexie declares, “And I want to talk about it!” Evidently, the ladies don’t. During the past twenty-two annual weekends, clearly, it’s a conversation they’ve had before.

Finally, there’s Jeri Neal (Stephanie Vlasich) whose chosen path had included taking her vows as a Bride of Christ and living with the other nuns at the convent, only this year things are different. A change of heart and an altered perspective occurred since they last met. For the first time in the history of the club’s reunions, once she arrives, Jeri Neal becomes the sudden center of the ladies’ attention; her entrance gives the play its first big laugh.

Each new scene ages the women by several years until the inevitable gray and a few unwelcome health issues finally take over. During their fifty-five years of friendship, we get to meet the women on four separate occasions, each reunion revealing something new in their lives that ultimately shape how things are going to be the next time they meet.

There’s an undeniable sense of TV to the play’s comic timing. Only in the world of television comedy would a character in a scene say something clearly funny and no one else in the room laughs (except, of course, the audience). It’s no surprise, then, that the collaboration of writers Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten sprung from TV, having written and produced several episodes of The Golden Girls. The rhythm of a quick setup followed by the payoff then on to a different subject is constant. It’s a formula best appreciated by audiences whose principle exposure to comedy is from television and not the theatre, but it’s a style that has worked regionally well for the trio of writers who used the same approach for another full-length comedy, The Savannah Sipping Society, a play revolving around not five but four Southern women who meet for happy hour. You can imagine the writer’s Swim Club pitch to potential backers; it’s Same Time, Next Year meets Steel Magnolias at a Golden Girls beachfront property.

Because of its sit-com base, The Dixie Swim Club is constantly witty, delivering a consistent barrage of snarky one-liners, quotable asides, and several amusing visual gags, such as Vernadette’s arm-sling in the first scene, followed by a crutch in the next, and a neck brace ten years later. It’s not that the healing equipment has anything to do with plot or even character, or that any of the other characters even mention them, but it’s a running gag that simply looks funny, which is why they’re there. When Jeri Neal explains her change of heart from living the convent life and developing a sudden interest in artificial insemination, it’s Lexie (of course) who points out, “The other way is more fun.” Plus, anyone who knows North Carolina and has lived there will appreciate Vernadette’s love letter to the great, freshly baked southern biscuit.

With a brightly lit and hugely effective beach cottage set designed by the play’s director and Rick Sandler, the smaller setting of the company’s Actor’s Café is put to excellent use, creating the illusion of more space than is often depicted. The challenge for Desert Stages is always to choose a play that works in the given forum. The Dixie Swim Club was never Broadway-bound, but as regional theatre with sit-com sensibilities, presented in this enjoyably lively Actor’s Café production with this cast, each of whom seems just right for the character type they portray, director Collins has delivered a perfect fit.

The Dixie Swim Club continues at Scottsdale Desert Stages Actor’s Café in Scottsdale until August 4

Pictures courtesy of Wade Moran

Posted in Theatre

Toy Story 4 – Film Review

When a trilogy is as near perfect as the three Toy Story animated features from Disney Pixar is, the news a while ago that a fourth might be in production was understandably greeted with a huge amount of apprehension. After all, even though the series consisted of three very individual adventures, in its way it was already the complete three-act saga. It had its beginning, a middle, and an immensely satisfying end.

Each had a plot that culminated with an exciting climax (each climax a little more exciting than the one before), and for the record, each was 11 minutes longer than the previous installment. Andy was grown and his toys were now passed on to little Bonnie. The sun could finally set on the cowboy and his buddies. Remember those videos where Pixar workers slept on their desks and offices all in order to finish the sequel? Do you know who they turned to to ease their post-production sleep? That’s right, were the chosen ones.

Yet, now, nine years after the what we thought was the final release, there’s Toy Story 4, so it’s no surprise that many fans, yours truly among them, were nervous. After all, for whatever reason, a trilogy seemed somehow finite. We only have to glance at Jaws: The Revenge to realize how a fourth chapter can subvert something that began so well.

The film begins with a flashback. It’s the moment nine years earlier when Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) was separated from cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang during a rainstorm. The character was absent for the duration of film number three, but this introductory moment of separation reminds us of who Boo Peep was and her emotional connection to Woody. She’ll turn up again later.

Note the photo-realism of the rain during the intro. When the original Toy Story was released in 1995, those little animated details such as the leaves on the trees, clouds in a rich blue sky, the wallpaper designs in the rooms, were quite remarkable. Considering how new computer-generated features were at the time, we had to be reminded that those exterior shots were still animated. Twenty-four years later, the progressive strides taken in the art of CGI are so wide, not only do we no longer question what we see, the photo-realism of rain pouring over vehicles in the street, puddles that splash, water that drips from pipes, are all taken for granted. But stop and study. The standard of animation is genuinely astonishing.

Besides the re-introduction of a previously known character and the technical achievements of animated technology, the other thing that may strike you is the film’s new screen ratio. This is the first Toy Story feature to be presented widescreen. All three previous movies were shown in the standard screen ratio of 1:85, meaning they were something slightly wider than a square. Once released on video, they would fit snugly on TV screens of yesteryear without losing much of the picture, and no black bars at the top and bottom. But number 4 is letterboxed, giving it a ratio of 2:39. Wide screens usually indicate a more epic stature to its content. Can you imagine a Star Wars film that was not letterboxed? For Toy Story 4, the screen ratio indicates its own separation from the original trilogy, plus the wide image serves as a visual reminder that what we’re watching is no straight-to-DVD installment; Toy Story 4 is pure cinema.

The film continues with the concept that all toys are secretly alive. Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and Mr. Potato Head (the late Don Rickles, whose voice was culled from previous outtakes and used with family permission for this film) along with the rest of Andy’s toys, are still together, but now they belong to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and Bonnie, on her first day of kindergarten, has made a new friend.

As part of a class project, Bonnie has made Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with pipe cleaner arms, mismatched googly eyes, and feet made from a Popsicle stick broken in two then held together by a lump of clay. But most importantly, Bonnie loves him. But once back at the bedroom with all the other toys, Forky has an identity crisis and wants out as soon as possible. Like Buzz Lightyear in the first film, Forky has no concept of being a toy. But unlike Buzz, who genuinely thought he was an astronaut stranded on a new planet, Forky has no clue what he is. Considering he’s made from neither a spoon nor a fork but a spork, having an identity crisis is understandable. “Like it or not, you’re a toy,” Woody has to remind the new addition to the nursery.

Once Forky makes a run for it, the toys are forced to take to the road to get him back, not only for Bonnie but for his own sake. Along the way they encounter help from Canadian daredevil toy and his motorcycle, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, whose final word at the end of the film is a character appropriate “Whoa”), the return of Bo Peep and her sheep, Billy, Goat, and Gruff, a group of creepy ventriloquist dolls who act as henchmen, and the film’s villain, Gabby Gabby (Christine Hendricks) as a talking doll whose voice box with the pull string no longer works. Plus, though you won’t catch their names during the film, stay for the credits to read the cast list, just for the fun of it. Some of Bonnie’s toys include Melephant Brooks (Mel Brooks), Chairol Burnett (Carol Burnett), Bitey White (Betty White), and Carl Reineroceros (Carl Reiner).

It won’t take long for those who, like me, doubted the need for a Toy Story 4. Perhaps need is pushing it. But it works wonderfully, proving that when Pixar has an idea, don’t be a doubter. For personal preferences, there could have been more scenes shared between Woody and Buzz, if only for ol’ times sake, but chapter 4 is more focused on Woody trying to rescue Forky while having his heartstrings pulled by Bo Peep and his voice string yanked by Gabby Gabby. It’s already crammed with incident.

The film grips, there are no lulls, and it’s continuously very funny. It’s also immensely touching. “Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do,” Woody reminds the nursery crowd. With a finale that all but guarantees a completion to the tales, Toy Story 4 should be Pixar’s final word on the matter. But then again, you can never be quite sure.

MPAA Rating; G            Length: 100 Minutes

Posted in Film

Freaky Friday – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Center Theater, Phoenix

The ability to see a problem through another person’s eyes in order to get a real understanding of thoughts and feelings is not easy. Stepping out of yourself, if only for a moment, and walking in someone’s shoes could make all the difference. It’s amazing how many of the world’s issues, big or small, would be solved when a simple perspective is changed. But what’s really amazing is that a lot of us just can’t do it.

In Freaky Friday, the new Disney musical comedy staged by Valley Youth Theatre and now playing Herberger Theater Center until June 30, takes a literal turn with the idea. At a crucial time in their lives, Mom and daughter are forced to swap places. Both have challenges that need to be faced, and both have a time crunch. For mom, it’s an approaching wedding; for the daughter, it’s her whole world, school friends, a boy, the challenge of teachers, everything. If only the other could see just how demanding their days are and what they have to go through.

And then it happens. A heated argument, a wish that the other could see how difficult their lives are, a tug-of-war with a suspiciously magical oversized hourglass, and, Shazam, bodies are swapped. It’s freaky. And it’s Friday.

While the show is based on the funny 1972 children’s novel by Mary Rodgers, the overall idea is the same, but the details are different. Having gone through several different Disney big-screen versions of the story, the first just four years after the book was published, a lot of tweaks and changes have fallen into place. Names are changed – daughter Annabel is now Ellie while mom has gone from Ellen to Katherine – plus there’s an important deadline approaching. “Everything started the day before my mother got married,” narrates the teenager.

Where the book centered almost exclusively on the point of view of the daughter in mom’s body (the real mom in daughter’s body is absent for most of the book and only turns up near the end) the show gives equal time to both. Plus, mom is supposed to be getting married the next day, except that mom now has to go to school or her daughter may be suspended for yet another absentee day, while daughter has to pull the wedding plans together or it’s all going to fall apart. There’s also the issue of that magic hourglass. It’s broken, which means in order to reverse the situation and get bodies back to normal, somehow either mom or daughter needs to find the other hourglass. It’s thought to be sitting on a shelf at a local pawn shop.

Counting the names, there are 32 teenagers on stage plus a further 5 guest adults, a huge cast, giving the company the ability to introduce new talent to experience professional theatre in the prestigious setting of the Herberger, many for the first time. And if there’s one thing that producing artistic director Bobb Cooper has a knack for doing right is, through auditions and an extensive search, finding the right cast for the right parts. For Freaky Friday, Cooper has compromised the rules of VYT age caps by casting an adult in the important central role of mom. He did it with Grease and West Side Story, and it worked. While all the teenage roles are age-appropriate, casting returning VYT alum Sarah Ambrose to play Katherine gives the comedic portion of her character that extra heft. Watching an adult playing a high-schooler pretending to be an adult is considerably more effective than having a teenager pretend she’s a teenager while dressed to appear like an adult. Ambrose is a talent, and her Ellie as Katherine – daughter as mom – is genuinely funny. “No way,” she declares when realizing bodies are swapped. “This sucks!

But the show doesn’t begin and end with an adult in the cast. Equally effective at changing personalities and convincing that what we’re watching is an adult in a teenager’s body is Kate Brink as Ellie. Last seen as the storefront dolly in VYT’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Brink is a bundle of musical theatre energy. In addition to sounding as if she’s fitting in when forced to spend a day as an adult, her Act Two song No More Fear brought the opening night house down and even had some to their feet.

The show was originally developed in 2016 when it opened in Arlington, Virginia. Despite mostly positive reviews, it never made it to Broadway. Instead, after fulfilling dates in San Diego, Cleveland, and Houston, the musical became immediately available for regional theatre around the country. A surprising move considering how funny writer Bridget Carpenter’s script is, and how good several of the songs from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s new score are. The device of having magic hourglasses as a means to swapping bodies might be asking a lot – magical fortune cookies in the 2003 movie remake was easier to digest – but that’s merely a pathway to making a point. What’s important is everything that follows. As Ellie sings in the introductory ensemble song, when just about everything is at stake, this particular Friday isn’t simply freaky, it’s also “… One crazy kick-ass day.”

With a cast this size and a support throughout that is this solid, the list of names that shine in such a vivacious and highly entertaining early summer production is too long, but there are standouts. In addition to the two central leads, worthy of special mentions are Alexis Archer as mean girl Savanah, Asher Stubbs as Ellie’s younger brother and budding ventriloquist Fletcher, Riley Thornton as the dreamy guy in high school whose every entrance is greeted with a heavenly choir declaring “Adam,” and in the ensemble, effectively doubling up as a mom, a waiter, and a cop, is Ryley Grace Youngs. “Good luck with the marriage thing,” she tells Ellie’s mom, adding, “I can’t say it worked out for me.

Having delivered an outstanding 2018/19 season (both Tuck Everlasting and the re-imaged version of Childsplay’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane were superior youth theatre productions) for the conclusion of its 30th Anniversary, and for the production chosen to open at the Herberger Center across town from its home base, VYT have capped things off spectacularly. From the live orchestra under Mark Feary’s direction to the energetic choreography of Nathalie Velasquez, this production exemplifies in all areas, technical and talent, the professionalism that truly is Valley Youth Theatre.

Disney Freaky Friday continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix until June 30

Pictures Courtesy of Memories by Candace

Posted in Theatre