If only we could see the world through each other’s eyes, we could finally achieve true understanding. That eternal quest, exploited so inventively in Mary Rodgers’ 1972 book “Freaky Friday” and in the subsequent Disney film adaptations, is captured again as a delightfully spunky musical from Disney Theatrical Productions, aimed with laser focus on the lucrative pre-teen market. It’s receiving its premiere at Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater as a vehicle intended solely for licensing. No Broadway stint for this show, Disney assures.
Delivered at a lively pace by director Christopher Ashley (“Memphis”), with an uptempo pop score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”), book writer Bridget Carpenter’s story again features a warring mother and a rebellious teenage daughter who trade places on one tumultuous day. But unlike the 2003 film, this version’s mother (Heidi Blickenstaff) owns a small catering business and her high school daughter (Emma Hunton) is embroiled with her chums in a scavenger hunt. Their switcheroo is accomplished not by a restaurant’s fortune cookie but by a pair of magical hourglasses.
The show dives in quickly via the rousing opener, “Just One Day,” where mom and daughter set their tortured relationship ablaze and supporting characters are introduced. The number ends with a fateful wrestling match over that magical heirloom hourglass.
Scenes switch briskly between the household’s kitchen, where a wedding reception is being prepped, and various high school locales, aided by set designer Beowulf Boritt’s versatile kitchen cabinets that become high school gym lockers with an easy twist by the ensemble. A minimally-appointed revolving stage is spun frequently, if only to add further pizzazz to dance numbers.
Visually and thematically, the musical borrows heavily from the Disney Channel’s afterschool programming in its reliance on bold colors, hip teen dialogue, a melting pot student body and cartoonish adults playing eager foils. For added coolness, boyfriend Adam (a likable Jason Gotay) expertly navigates the stage on a blinking hoverboard in an inventive piece of choreography.
En route to its rosy ending, the show offers a steady stream of wholesome messages for kids of all ages. Blickenstaff’s Katharine concedes that parents sometimes lie to their kids, while Hunton urges her teenage friends not to be ashamed of their bodies. The duo jointly preach that “it’s not the finding, it’s the searching, it’s the hunt for who you’ll be.”
But it’s the enduring message of empathy and understanding that gives “Friday” its timeless appeal. It is exploited in this production with strong performances by leads Blickenstaff and Hunton, who are each believable in their demanding dual roles.
Accompanied by a versatile nine-piece orchestra, their delightful soprano voices are showcased in the poignant Act II number “Bring My Baby (Brother) Home.” A delightful moment for Blickenstaff comes in a closing scene when, still playing the daughter, she’s smitten by the affections of boyfriend Adam.
Among others in the cast, Signature regular Bobby Smith is a quick-change riot in multiple roles including the grandfather and biology teacher.
But “Friday” is not a perfect outing for Kitt and Yorkey. Although their 15 songs contain enjoyable melodies and stirring ensemble harmonies, they seldom deviate from the relentless pace that contributes to the show’s overall frenetic feel. Kid-friendly songs like “Busted” and “What You Got” will hit home, but others feel trapped in sameness.
Yorkey’s lyrics also lapse occasionally into static rhymes, beginning with an opening number where the angry mother and daughter exchange barbs. (“I’m perfection. Don’t need your direction,” sings daughter Ellie.) Similarly, lyrics in a second-act tune that liken women to sandwiches are occasionally, ah, unpalatable.
But such faults aren’t likely to prevent “Friday” from finding an eager audience with an age group that theaters are desperate to attract. The musical has already been added to next season’s schedules at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Cleveland Playhouse and Houston’s Alley Theater.