“Freaky Friday,” the polished, peppy and predictable new musical adapted from the popular young adult novel and a couple of Disney movies of the same title, is an ideal show for grown-ups looking for a completely wholesome activity to share with the kids in their lives.
Composed with aplomb by “Next to Normal” songwriters Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and bookwriter Bridget Carpenter, the musical, in a world premiere at Signature Theatre, where it officially opened Tuesday night, offers two marvelously sung, resonantly comical central performances by Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton. They play a suburban Chicago mother and daughter at each other’s throats until the magical switcheroo that forces them to learn what it’s like to live in the other’s skin.
It’s a simple premise, well executed under the leadership of Broadway-tested director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Sergio Trujillo. The stakes are so clearly laid out, and the plot points so easy to anticipate, though, that “Freaky Friday” has about it a prefabricated feel. A highly accomplished, squeaky-clean after-school special is what it reminds you of.
Signature was chosen by the Walt Disney Co.’s theater division to serve as the proving ground for “Freaky Friday,” which the entertainment giant intends to license to theaters across the country — several stage productions are already lined up, the company says — rather than contemplating Broadway. This seems a smart strategy at present for this fleece comforter of a show. If dazzlement is not in the offing, warmth and sweetness can be counted on as reassuring lesser compensations.
Carpenter, a playwright and television writer (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”) has created a generously pliable platform for the music of Kitt and Yorkey, whose pop melodies zestily evoke modern teenage angst and maternal insecurity. As a mother-daughter love story with a decidedly happy ending, “Freaky Friday” is the flip side of “Next to Normal,” Kitt and Yorkey’s Pulitzer-winning musical about a suburban mother whose serious mental illness tears a family apart and drives a particularly heartbreaking wedge between her and her teenage daughter.
Here, Blickenstaff’s widowed Katherine, on the eve of her marriage to the superhumanly kind and patient Mike (Alan H. Green), is a type-A fussbudget whom Hunton’s eternally annoyed, 16-year-old Ellie wants to strangle. Soon, courtesy of an enchanted object left to them by Katherine’s first husband, the body exchange occurs, and Katherine and Ellie must fend for themselves on each other’s difficult-to-navigate turf, with the expected near-disastrous results.
The actresses are rewardingly adroit at appropriating each other’s signature behaviors; one of the production’s coups is that with Ashley’s supervision, Blickenstaff and Hunton successfully sustain the illusion that you’re seeing one person and hearing another. Blickenstaff, in particular, elevates this duality to art. Her channeling of adolescent consciousness is funniest when she is supposed to be the mom but can’t maintain her composure in the presence of high school dreamboat Adam (Jason Gotay), whose entrances are delineated by halos of heavenly light and a chorus reverentially singing his name.
While Gotay and a few others in the 18-member cast are accorded occasional solos — and the adorably unaffected Jake Heston Miller, as Ellie’s puppet-loving younger brother, Fletcher, proves to be a major asset — the production is essentially a two-woman band. (The actual nine-member band, conducted by Bryan Perri, plays from behind a scrim on the balcony level.) Beowulf Boritt’s attractive, pristinely mobile set seamlessly alternates between Ellie’s high school and Katherine’s kitchen, and, in one clever sequence, it becomes a streetscape on which the story’s teenagers participate in a smartphone scavenger hunt, a la Pokémon Go. The incorporation of a hoverboard adds to the sense, along with designer Emily Rebholz’s on-trend costumes, of the musical’s aspirations for up-to-the-minute pop cultural relevance.
Kitt and Yorkey’s score does a commendable job advancing the plot, though the songs tend to rock in a gentle manner; only the Act 2 “Bring My Baby (Brother) Home” seems to get the audience really going. Although edge is not an overarching attribute here, there’s one smart, twist-of-the-knife song: “Parents Lie,” which Katherine-as-Ellie, in mean-spirited mode, sings to the devastated Fletcher. Some day, I’d love to hear this illusion-shattering number sung in counterpoint to “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods.”
Children will indeed enjoy this new, easy-listenin’ version of an oft-dramatized modern fairy tale. Hard-pressed adults grateful for some nicely handled, non-taxing diversion will be happy campers, too.
Freaky Friday, book by Bridget Carpenter, music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo; set, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Brian Ronan and Kai Harada; wigs and makeup, Leah Loukas; orchestrations, Michael Starobin and Kitt; music supervision, Bryan Perri. With J. Elaine Marcos, Bobby Smith, Sherri L. Edelen, Storm Lever, Shayna Blass, Katie Ladner, Tyler Bowman, Cicily Daniels, Thaddeus McCants, Julian Ramos and Jason “SweetTooth” Williams. About 2 hours, 25 minutes. Tickets: $40-$108. Through Nov. 20 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.