LJP ‘Freaky Friday’ a Winner in Residence

It’s a stale title, yes, reminiscent of Disney popcorn exploitation in the golden age of the mall multiplex, but nearly everything else is terrific with the new La Jolla Playhouse musical Freaky Friday.

The Bridget Carpenter book is a model of the form, a tight, bright script that mines several levels of the basic fantasy (mom and teenaged daughter magically trade bodies for a time) and produces both nuggets of insight and shots of fun.

The songs by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey are plenty OK in themselves but elevate their impact with their seamless fit into the story. Together, the three authors have created a space where a fable can breathe with plausibility and shimmer with detail.

David Jennings, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jake Heston Miller and Emma Hunton, left to right, in La Jolla Playhouse Freaky Friday. Jim Carmody Photo

In this present-day suburbia where a dynamic working widow is raising a couple of very average kids, nobody is perfect (though a couple of the guys come close). Both mother and daughter, suddenly swapped, tumble into journeys of discovery comfortably predictable yet rich with surprises. And so secure is the story structure that there’s never a need to snatch a moment and ponder realities. Stuff just happens, the way one would expect in such a situation. (Wait…)

The daughter, peaking in her disdain for adult incomprehension, must handle a tricky interview/photo session that could result in a trade-mag cover story that secures the family fortune. The mom finds herself in the maelstrom of high school social politics, a leader of the nice-girl gang who’s known to be gaga over a much-admired free-spirit casual about his machismo. Both discover nuances of stress in subjects as varied as cooking, antiques, teamwork, quests and body awareness, not to mention the usual hormonal tolls of every generation.

Director Christopher Ashley, the LJP artistic boss who’s just moving right along up in the ranks of premiere American musical theatre creators, has shaped this valuable package with a master’s touch, deftly supplying polished details of staging that enhance without swagger. Ditto the choreography of Sergio Trujillo, whose work becomes story-telling, not mere cute routines. Both men perform tiny feats of legerdemain in causing the 17-member company to comfortably inhabit twice that many characters.

Imagine the challenge of Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton, playing mother and daughter. These are characters of unusual nuance, worth straining to create: a mother fighting to juggle her creativity, duties, libido, grief and Type-A impatience; a daughter furious at the new man in the house, exhausted by a kid brother’s babble, frustrated by an unrewarding school. And the actresses each must alternate between both roles.

Blickenstaff nails it. She does have the downhill ride, snooty boss-lady forced into surly studenthood, whereas Hunton must smoothly simulate the mantle of power for a world that makes her skin crawl with revulsion. Riding such a sturdy vehicle, with book and score so meshed, makes all possible.

In the song “Busted,” mom discovers a panty-line tattoo and daughter finds the stash of cigarettes, the beginning of humanization after the near savage, defiant energy of “What You Get.” A parent/teacher conference brings the predictable role-switching hilarity in “Somebody Has Got to Take the Blame” but also a deepening of mutual understanding. And the jagged encounter “Parents Lie,” when sister-as-mom tells it straight to the agog little boy (Jake Heston Miller, appealing despite his beauty) is a triumph for Blickenstaff as well as the next step in the plot.

And this is just Act I, without mentioning the super expositional song “Just One Day,” that so neatly opens and closes the first half.

The musical arrangements, a collaboration of Kitt, the composer, with Michael Starobin and Carmel Dean, are further steps along the musical-theatre road to making a handful of accompanists, enhanced superbly by electronics, sound like a full orchestra of old. Conductor Andrew Graham is at one of the two keyboards and he numbers just eight colleagues behind the upstage scrim. (Turn around sometime at the Mandell Weiss Theatre and check out the TV monitor view of Graham calmly presiding for the performers’ benefit.)

The supporting cast are a legion of diversity that sings like a cloistered choir and switches between high school sullen and grownup solemn with remarkable ease. David Jennings, as the cabinetmaker who fell in love with the client, is a rock of maturity thankfully there when needed. Joseph Dellger, Mary Jo McConnell and Jason SweetTooth Williams sort out and deliver a variety of adults.

Chris Ramirez, right, and friends in La Jolla Playhouse Freaky Friday through March 12 Jim Carmody Photo

A special mention must go to Chris Ramirez, who plays the high school heartthrob with a sweet air of aboveness and mystery that supplies a delicate emotional balance to the whole show. He also sings a persuasive guy-to-guy growing-up song, “Women and Sandwiches.”

Beowulf Boritt, who’s already on the way to Broadway with his last LJP effort Come From Away, has contrived useful vertical wagon units and a lovely opening cyclorama of quiet suburbia. When the amazing body swap transpires, the serene skyline uptilts at either edge, becoming something like Boris Aronson did for the original Fiddler on the Roof. Not entirely successful but not obtrusive. And Boritt’s double concentric turntable center-stage gives Ashley and Trujillo, the choreography, all kinds of seized opportunities for group movement.

Emily Rebholz’s costumes and Howell Binkley’s lighting are quite acceptable but might have been more, given the opportunities here for sly fantasy.

This is most certainly a show not to be missed for musical comedy nuts and the general public alike. Who knows when and if there will be another opportunity, given the odd production history of the project?

The story was first told in a 1972 novel by the late Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard and creator herself of Once Upon a Mattress. The Disney empire made it into a film in 1976 with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, then again in 2003 with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. They still own the rights and they are backers of the current version, which opened last October at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, with nearly the exact same company.

Ashley brought it home for this run with additional engagements announced at the Cleveland Play House and Houston’s Alley Theatre. But, says Disney, there are no plans to aim it at Broadway. Why? Who knows. It certainly surpasses in quality the last Disney film-to-stage musical, Newsies. And there are 40 playhouses to fill in the Broadway district.

I do know that La Jolla presently has a winner in residence.

Continues in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and at 7 p.m. Sundays through March 12, 2017.




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