Review by David Brush of “Freaky Friday”: NKU Theatre
If there is a list of commonly employed theatre tropes that resurface again and again, mistaken identities would certainly top that list. Since Shakespeare, the device goes like this – characters are mistaken for each other, chaos and hilarity ensue, characters reconnect with newly learned lessons after said switch is reversed and the audience has been in on the joke the entire time. Don’t let that simple description fool you – it’s a device that, when used well and executed clever, is effective. Its effectiveness is perhaps never more evident in contemporary repertoire than in the 1977 Mary Rodgers novel, Freaky Friday. The story – which follows a mother and daughter who magically switch bodies for 24 hours – has seen a variety of incarnations; the latest (under the Disney juggernaut) is the regional premiere of the musical version, currently playing at Northern Kentucky University’s Corbett Theatre. And while the material is decidedly Disney thin, NKU’s production is far better than, and rises above, the material – thanks in large part to a powerhouse ensemble who deliver Tom Kitt’s harmonies like pros and waste not one of Brian Yorkey’s lyrics.
A musical is only as good as its ensemble, and if this one
is any indication of the vocal dexterity and choreographic precision of this
current crop of BFA students, then the industry at large is about to get an
influx of talent from the Bluegrass State. Characters were defined and
consistent despite having very little script material (Bridget Carpenter’s
fast-paced but bare bones book) or stage time to do so. In particular, Danielle
Ullman as “Gretchen” is the perfect example of what secondary
character/ensemble work looks like – charming, consistent, funny, and honest. (Someone
cast her in a leading role right now!)
None of this is to take away from the two dynamic leading
women who carry the bulk of the comedic weight and the heavy lifting in Kitt
and Yorkey’s (Next To Normal, If/Then) score. Blair Lamb and Sarah Hack
are essentially playing two roles and do so with remarkable character shift.
“After All Of This and Everything” and “No More Fear” are highlights.
The scenic design (Anna Catton) is unavoidably busy but director Jamey Strawn handles it far better than a less seasoned director might. The pace, in fact, keeps moving – and yet still stops to address Ellie and Katherine’s arcs where needed. The orchestra clearly understands how Starobin and Kitt’s arrangements operate – tempos and nuances land beautifully. I would be remiss not to mention Tracey Bonner’s brilliant choreography – particularly in “Go” which (in very Tom Kitt style) covers a lot of emotional and physical ground to make it work effectively. “Go” was brilliantly staged.
I highly applaud NKU for placing “Freaky Friday” on their season where other organizations might turn up their high-art noses. NKU understands this piece represents a very specific Disney-esque arm of the industry and a style where their graduates will need to be prepared to work. NKU’s “Freaky Friday” is gorgeously sung and energizes me for more of what this clearly amazing program has to offer. “Freaky Friday” plays through Nov. 24th. Tickets are available online at http://www.nku.edu/sotatickets.