OGDEN — It has been almost a year since I’ve been able to sit in a theatre seat and feel the energy of live theatre. It has been a long year, and the theatre looks different now with temperature checks at the door, everyone in masks, and social distance seating. With all of these hurdles, I wasn’t sure how the Ziegfeld Theatre was going to manage Freaky Friday, a new musical by Disney. Rather than shy away from the task, director Morgan Parry simply embraced the challenge and mounted the musical set today in a COVID-affected world. The production was double cast to guard against losing actors if quarantines became necessary, and thanks to the digital program, I was able to access the program on my phone to see who was performing. While I certainly long for the time when big musical numbers could be belted out without masks, this production of Freaky Friday does a wonderful job delivering phenomenal singing, dancing, and connection between characters.
The 2016 musical, written by Bridget Carpenter with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, never got a Broadway run but was released as a Disney Channel TV movie. The story is told by Ellie, played by Sydney McAlister, about the weekend of her mother’s everything-must-be-perfect second wedding. Ellie is in a funk: her little brother Fletcher (Jacob Tousley), talks through puppets and is driving her crazy; mother Katherine (Becky Knowles) is controlling everything; Kathrine’s fiancé Mike (Landon Weeks) is trying too hard to make everyone get along; and Mom won’t let her sneak away to take part in the scavenger hunt organized by Ellie’s crush. A confrontation between mother and daughter occurs over a mystical hourglass and—bam—they leap into each other’s body. Ellie is forced to walk a mile in her mother’s high heels, and Kathrine has to see what life is like in her daughter’s converse shoes.
The standout performance by Knowles makes this show worth seeing, as she demonstrates excellent comedic timing playing a teenager trapped in an adult’s body. Her vocal prowess was both touching, in the song, “Parents Lie,” and powerful in, “Bring My Baby (Brother) Home,” and she harmonizes beautifully with McAlister as Ellie in several powerful duets. McAlister’s character Ellie came across slightly flat at times as she played the stern mother trapped in her teenage daughter, but overall McAlister gave a strong performance, matched Knowles’ energy, and harmonized superbly.
I love that the Ziegfeld Theatre chose a happy musical with positive vibes. The large chorus was exceptional and brought all the energy craved in a big musical. The supporting cast was excellent, especially the high school students. Choreographer Dylan Panter made exceptional use of the space and his young actors’ talents to bring up the energy of each big dance number with sharp dance moves. Angel Martinez, as Ellie’s crush Adam, was particularly impressive with his dancing and hoverboard skills.
The two strong female leads are outstanding and make this production, but there were a few problems with the show on opening night. There was a sound balance issue where I could not hear some of the secondary characters’ solo parts. Some of that imbalance might be attributed to the masks, but it did make it a little hard to understand some details in the story. Also, Weeks was pitchy as Mike on his song, “Vows,” but Knowles was able to play up her reactions to him and made it a funny moment nonetheless.
I was impressed with the set designed by Caleb Parry, which utilized wagons that quickly and smoothly changed the scene and were well done. Parry also did the projection design, which I enjoyed, because it gave a modern feel to the story.
While it was a different experience at the theatre than in pre-COVID times, this musical was just what I needed right now: bright, funny, and bursting with energy. It embraced the challenges and forged ahead with purpose and positivity, taking a familiar story and making it fun and exciting. At a time when many might feel like the family around us is driving us crazy, because we are cooped up together all the time, this show expresses how important it is to see things from the other person’s point of view and to love each other through it all. The acting is superb and the songs are lovely. It is a family-friendly show that follows COVID guidelines to keep the audience and staff safe, and is well worth the price for an utterly delightful night out. I think we can all use more of those.