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

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