Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Valley Youth Theatre is presenting the local premiere of the 2016 musical in an exceptional production featuring a talented cast, sumptuous creative elements, and expert direction that brings out both the humor and the emotion of the funny but also heartfelt story.
The plot takes place the day before the upcoming wedding of Katherine Blake, a widowed mother of two who is a control-freak, multi-tasking caterer in last minute preparations for her wedding. She is doing everything for the event, including making the cake, as it will be featured in a high profile wedding magazine. Her teen daughter Ellie is more concerned with boys than school, and especially one boy in particular, Adam, who is running the Hunt, an annual scavenger hunt that Ellie is desperate to participate in even, though it means she'll miss her mother's wedding rehearsal dinner. When Katherine tells Ellie she can't do the Hunt, they end up in a yelling fight with both saying they don't understand each other, and when a sentimental object they are holding happens to break, they find themselves magically in each other's bodies. Can they find a way to switch back into their correct bodies while managing school, work, interviews for the wedding magazine, and parent teacher conferences before the wedding the next day?
While Rodgers' novel is the basis for the musical, film and TV versions, and the main characters of a mother and her daughter who don't understand each other are basically the same across all of the adaptations, each piece has made a number of changes to Rodgers' original plot and supporting characters which helps to keep it fresh and modern. Bridget Carpenter's book for the musical keeps the upcoming wedding element from the 2003 film plot but also provides some nice fun twists, including the scavenger hunt and the sentimental object that results in the body swap, so those who are familiar with either the novel or the previous films will be in for some fun surprises. Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey have crafted a fast-paced and fun score that features a few catchy tunes and introspective ballads, though some of the songs are forgettable and it never truly matches the genius of their score for Next to Normal, which also focuses in part on the strained relationship between a mother and daughter.
Producing Artistic Director Bobb Cooper almost always manages to cast the perfect actor for each part in their shows. For this production, which he also directs, he has not only found an exceptional talented teen cast but also opted to include a few older "guest" actors to portray Katherine and several of the supporting adult parts in the show. Cooper's direction is spotless, which ensures the production is fast-moving and funny, with every joke landing with big laughs.
Sarah Ambrose and Kate Brink do very well as Katherine and Ellie. Under Cooper's direction, and with expert facial expressions and body language, you can instantly believe they have switched bodies from the second it happens, and relish in the humorous situations their characters find themselves in. Ambrose is an alumni of several past VYT productions and the recent University of Arizona graduate has also appeared in numerous productions at theatre companies across the Valley. Her singing voice is exceptional and she is superb as Katherine. Brink is just as good as Ellie, with a wonderful singing voice and no-nonsense take on the part. Watching Ambrose morph before our eyes from the hyper mom to the slouchy and sassy teen while Brink instantly changes from the testy and argumentative girl to the prim and proper mother is a joy and a testament to their excellent acting choices and Cooper's succinct direction. Their solo songs are beautifully delivered, with Ambrose's "Parents Lie," in which she instills the harsh truth of life to her younger brother even though it breaks his heart, and Brink's "No More Fear," as Ellie finds the nerve to not let the pain of her past get the best of her, sensational.
In the supporting cast, Riley Thornton is bright and charming as Ellie's crush Adam with a lovely and rich singing voice. Asher Stubbs is hilarious, with good comic timing, as Ellie's brother Fletcher, who only speaks through his puppets, and Chris Bradford is good as Katherine's understanding fiancé Mike. Jessica Fink is funny as Katherine's overly anxious assistant Torrey, and Kylie Merrill and Anna Mettes are fun as Ellie's best friends Gretchen and Hannah. As Ellie's good-natured grandparents, Molly Jisa and Mick Fink are charming and sweet, while Alexis Archer is appropriately nasty to Ellie as Savannah, the "mean girl" at school. Also, Bennett Wood is fun in a couple of small roles and hits some impressive high notes in his solo, and Anastasia Rai is humorous as a sadistic gym teacher.
The creative elements are excellent, with Dori Brown's simple but elegant set design, which only uses several large four-sided columns that rotate and move seamlessly around the stage to depict the interior of Katherine's high-end kitchen, the corridor at the high school, and numerous other locations in the show, incredibly effective. Karol Cooper's costumes are modern, colorful, and character perfect and the choreography by Nathalie Velasquez is bright, varied, and danced well by the large cast. Jeff A. Davis' lighting is always exceptional, no matter what show he designs, and here his lighting looks gorgeous on Brown's set. He also uses a combination of shadows and some fun effects to depict the mystical element in the show. Mark Fearey's music direction and Tristan Peterson-Steinert's conducting deliver some impressive music from the cast and the 16-piece orchestra. The sound design by Brian Honsberger is good on the solo songs but veered toward being a bit muddy with lyrics hard to hear on the large ensemble numbers at the opening night performance.
Freaky Friday has proven to be a popular title over the years and the stage musical beautifully depicts how switching bodies and walking in another person's shoes for a day can make you learn to appreciate them better. With a perfect cast, excellent direction, and superb creative elements, Valley Youth Theatre's production is exceptional.
I have to imagine Mary Rodgers, who died just two years before the musical debuted and whose father was the famous composer Richard Rodgers, and who was also a famous composer herself ( Once Upon a Mattress), would be happy to see how her original story has been turned into such a warm and funny musical.
Freaky Friday, through June 30, 2019, at Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-252-8497 or at www.vyt.com.
Book by Bridget Carpenter
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Freaky Friday Guest Artists: