MAGNA — Attending the opening weekend of Freaky Friday at the Empress Theatre on Mother’s Day weekend was a freakishly fitting outing and full of fun. This musical adaptation of Freaky Friday is based on the novel of the same name by Mary Rodgers and the Disney films based on it. As I am familiar with the previous Disney productions of Freaky Friday, I was interested in how a musical adaptation would feel unique from the prior film adaptations. With a book by Bridget Carpenter, music by Tom Kitt, and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the show adds pop music and ballads to effectively modernize a familiar story.
As the production is about a mom and a daughter gaining empathy and perspective of the other’s life, I appreciate director Beth Bruner casting this show with families in mind. In the cast of 25 actors, 15 of them are related to someone else in the show. The preshow slideshow highlighted these relationships by sharing photos of these families participating in the production. This was a heartwarming touch that emphasized that Freaky Friday is very much a family show for teenagers and their adults.
As for the family of Freaky Friday, Ellie is the teenage daughter of mom Katherine, and they begin the play immediately expressing their dislike of each other. Ellie is deeply angry and upset that her mom is getting remarried the next day to fiancé Mike because she believes her mom has forgotten her father who passed away. As Ellie and Katherine grab hold of a magic hourglass, they are stunned to discover that they have switched bodies. And because the hourglass is now broken, they must find the duplicate before they can switch back to normal. In the meantime, the two must learn to live one another’s lives with varying degrees of success. Ellie, now in Katherine’s body, is managing motherhood, her mom’s catering business, and the final day before her mother’s wedding. Katherine, now in Ellie’s body, is back in high school. During this day, both mom and daughter learn to appreciate, respect and love one other as they manage wedding planning, a runaway brother, and a teen scavenger hunt.
Freaky Friday naturally lends itself to a musical production. The conflict in this show is driven by an internal swap that drives the events of the story forward. That inner frustration of feeling out of place naturally blends into singing about all those feelings. The absurd already happened and now the music and lyrics can delve into the internal processes of a teenage soul in a mother’s body, and vice-versa for the mother. The introspection allows for great solo moments by our two leads, and Kroff and Skeen are terrific vocalists. Both used the lyrics of the songs to continue their spoken performance in the show. The show gives a solo opportunity in both acts that show the shift in mindset as the characters grow and change. Skeen sings “No More Fear” with command of the stage shining in the brightness of a spotlight. These solo moments are emphasized with spots that never missed a pickup by lightning designer David Bruner.
The central element driving the events of the show is the “freaky” switch, which demands that the actors playing mom and daughter convince the audience that they have really switched bodies. The performance of Beck Skeen as daughter Ellie and Jen Kroff as mom Katherine is delightful to watch. As actors, both Skeen and Kroff brought heart and soul, drama, and energy to this production.
Skeen opens the show with narration and a strong leading vocal and immediately drew me in with an energetic delivery and characterization. Skeen gave a clear sense of who Ellie is, and a few minutes later Kroff is introduced as mom Katherine. Kroff played Katherine with a distinct energy and personality from her daughter. After establishing the critical relationship of the show in the opening number, an hourglass and rainbow lighting transform and Skeen now plays Katherine while Kroff will now play Ellie. This transition is seamlessly convincing that the actors are now the other character. The best moments of the production were any scenes that required both Ellie and Katherine to interact together, such as a parent-teacher-student conference during the first act. During this parent-teacher-student conference, staging and performance highlighted the contrast of teenage Skeen playing the adult and adult Kroff playing the teenager.
Kroff also does a good job making sense of Ellie’s growth in the second act having learned about parenthood and I loved her vocal performance of “After All of This and Everything” sung to younger brother Fletcher. Kroff’s performance had me reflect on how challenging it would be to immediately enter the burdens of motherhood, rather than grow through each stage of life.
Likewise, Stephanie Benson’s choreography helped emphasize the switch. When Ellie arrives at the high school in “I Got This,” Benson uses dance to show that “Ellie” (now Katherine) is out of step and does not know the same movement as the rest of the teenagers. However, the choreography of the musical number “Go” was more muddled and distracted from the overall performance. This musical number really slowed down the whole energy of the show and failed to really move the story forward, as it is centered on the overall scavenger hunt. I was anxious to get back to finding the hourglass and focusing on mom and daughter again.
Another performance that impressed me was Jeremy Jonsson’s portrayal of Mike, the fiancé. Jonnson was so deeply sincere in relation to Kroff’s (as Ellie) antagonism that it created great tension between the characters. This was anticipated as Skeen established that antagonism to Jonnson at the start of the show and Kroff matches anti-chemistry that ensues in some comical evasiveness. Others in the ensemble did a good job reacting to the conflicts created by mom and daughter being clearly out of place. Overall, the cast is believable in being perplexed by the changed personalities, especially in reaction to Kroff’s performance.
Additionally, there was little in shifting appearances after Ellie and Katherine switched bodies. Skeen slightly changes costume by swapping a moody black jacket with a thick striped sweater and then clipping back their hair. However, the only change to indicate “Katherine’s” a more youthful interior was that she removed her high heels. Because the script notes the changes “Ellie” makes in appearance, it would add to have “Katherine” make some corresponding appearance changes.
The production of Freaky Friday at the Empress Theatre is a fun-filled family time. While the story of the play is “freaky,” the production is a solid adaptation of the musical. The less polished moments of the performance are overcome by the awesome performance of the two leads. I left the performance delighted and thinking about how much I would learn if I switched with my mom for a day. Hopefully, such a perspective can last beyond just one day.