SANDY — If there’s one word that describes Freaky Friday, it’s ebullient. This Disney musical is so packed with cheerful energy, only the stoniest of hearts could escape the theater without a smile. It’s also the best musical I’ve seen in Utah since Tuck Everlasting on the same stage last year.
The 2016 show (with music by Tom Kitt, and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) never got a Broadway run, but the musical was released as a Disney Channel TV movie last year. The familiar plot revolves around a fateful day when a mother and daughter magically switch bodies. Do they learn valuable lessons from walking in each other’s shoes? They absolutely do.
The cast stars a phenomenal Bailee Johnson as daughter Ellie. Bailee Johnson blew the roof off the building with her powerful, clear, and emotive singing. Her acting was superb, convincingly portraying both a 16-year old and a 40-something year-old trapped in a teenage body. The 40-something in question is Katherine, confidently portrayed by Korianne Orton Johnson.
Each scene was delightful, especially the big cast numbers. Every time the high school students entered the stage, they brought with them a tangible energy. In the hilariously entertaining, “Busted,” teens and parents uncovered each other’s secret vices, like a father’s Cher collection and a son’s browser cache full of Fox News (“I was just looking for the TRUTH, Dad!”). In another number called, “Oh, Biology,” a Katherine-trapped-in-Ellie’s-body finds her heart skipping a beat over a hunky classmate in science. My favorite line from that number was, “Oh, biology! What have you done to me? Why can’t my grown-up brain control my teenage parts?” Overall, the songs were well-written, and the ballads were also genuinely moving. The script by Bridget Carpenter was also absolutely hilarious and packed with jokes for all ages.
Direction, lights, set and choreography all worked together fabulously to create a fun and above all colorful production. Director Rodger Sorenson did good work setting up characters, scenes, and set changes, and choreography by Cory Stephens was big and lively. Set design by Danna Barney was also slick and smart. The set used flat, bright surfaces like 70s-style glass panes to make the production colorful and fun, but also very efficient. The stage transformed into a high school just by lowering some panes of painted glass with lockers on them. Costuming by Kim Fitt was also perfect. In addition to having the best name for a costumer ever, Fitt missed no marks dressing up the denizens of modern-day high school students and their suburbanite families.
The supporting cast was wonderful, including Melissa Ivy Summers as Katherine’s uptight assistant, Neal C. Johnson as Katherine’s fiancé, and an aw-shucks adorable Toby Worland as her son. Every member of the ensemble deserves praise—especially the high school students. Aimee Johnson and Ally Choe were perfect as Ellie’s best friends, and Zack Elzey was a solid heartthrob as Adam.
While the show was delightful, not everything worked. Act II started out with a real bomb in the form of a surprisingly objectifying number called, “Women and Sandwiches,” which is just as bad as it sounds and completely unnecessary. It was soon followed up by another odd number called, “Bring My Baby Brother Home,” where instead of frantically looking for her lost son like a normal person, Katherine took 5 minutes to belt a wacky soul number with a couple goofy cops.
Another number with room for improvement was Katherine’s, “What You Got,” where she shocked her coworkers with her new, young attitude. I couldn’t tell if the situation was supposed to be an amazing success or a terrible disaster. One hurdle for Korianne Orton Johnson was that she played her embodied daughter as a low-energy slacker that unfortunately translated into her performance as also being a little low-energy. One place this low-energy was particularly noticeable was in the number, “I Got This.” The song itself was great—it had funny, insightful lyrics, a good tune, and did yeoman’s plot work. However, Korianne Orton Johnson’s performance was a better fit for the small screen than the big stage. However, overall her acting, singing, and character work were solid. Korianne Orton Johnson did a wonderful job portraying both the slightly bossy mother and the teen trapped in an adult body (a.k.a, the parent kids wish they had). Korianne Orton Johnson had a good set of pipes to boot, even if she was overpowered by Bailee Johnson on duets.
The fateful hourglass scene would also benefit from some attention. First, it wasn’t clear that the hourglass was magical at all or why the odd antique prop was randomly sitting in the middle of a chic designer kitchen. The moment of its breaking could have been punched up with more lights, sound, and special effects to make it clear that something magical was happening. A little fog machine wouldn’t have hurt, either. As it stands, I’m not sure someone unfamiliar with the basic plot would know what happened.
Elzey also lost his singing voice halfway through the show—a double shame, because his acting, looks, and voice were great otherwise. Maybe some emergency lozenges or lemons backstage or a sub in from the MWF cast while Elzey heals would help.
While a number of things kept this production from perfection, Hale’s Freaky Friday is not to be missed by musical lovers. The acting is wonderful. The songs are lovely. The musical is bright, funny, and bursting with energy—not to mention, brand-spanking new. The tickets are well-worth the price for the experience of an utterly delightful Freaky Friday.