There’s no denying that the gimmick at the heart of this show, a musical version of the 1976 Disney movie, is a sure-fire winner. I mean, a mom and self-employed event planner named Katherine and her teenage daughter Ellie magically exchange bodies and set the stage for lots of generational laughs. (Mom has to go to high school and deal with those rotten kids! Snarky teenager has to convince a wedding magazine to do a cover story on her mom’s business!).
For this effort, the cross-generational jokes have been updated to the 21st century by book writer Bridget Carpenter. In addition, they’ve hired Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey to, respectively, do the music and lyrics. Seems like a no-brainer, since these guys put together the stunning musical Next to Normal You even have renowned scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creating a wonderfully flexible yet simple set, utilizing continually morphing columns that roll about in various configurations against a suburban landscape.
So, how can you miss? Well, let’s put it this way: IT WOULD BE EXHAUSTING TO READ THIS REVIEW IF EVERY SENTENCE WAS SCREAMING AT YOU AT THE TOP OF IT’S LUNGS AND NEVER GIVING YOU A CHANCE TO BREATHE!
Similarly, it is tiring to watch a musical that attempts to turn every song into an anthem. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Broadway anthems, those show-stopping numbers (think “I Am What I Am” or “Lullaby of Broadway”) that people leave the theater talking about. Wow, they say, that was powerful!
The trick is, that power is generated because the anthems are high points in a show, not the entire musical fabric. But in this production, virtually every song is composed and sung like an anthem, at full volume and with maximum emotional investment. This is all in the service of a plot that, while clever, depends on a rather flimsy one-joke premise.
As a result, the potentially tender, lightly amusing and affecting fantasy is crushed under the brutal treads of the Kitt/Yorkey pop-rock sonic muggings and music director Andrew Graham’s unrelenting intensity. In a different context, a couple of the song-anthems would be quite satisfying, since the premise-setting “Just One Day” and the secret-revealing “Busted” are quite entertaining. But in this production, they’re just another blast in the face.
In addition to the over-torqued songs, Yorkey is given to writing lyrics that are jammed with information—no “moon-June” simplicity for him. This worked brilliantly in the aforementioned Next to Normal, since it dealt with serious mental illness issues. Lots to delve into there. But in this show, his wordy delectation of the not-so-deep, storybook central theme quickly becomes overkill. In “No More Fear,” Katherine in the body of Ellie laments her past parental decisions in excruciating detail: “How long have I kept an even keel?/How hard have I worked to keep our life so calm and neat?/How do I clean up this mess I made?” Maybe Yorkey could clean up this situation by not trying so hard.
Happily, there are some survivors. When the actors are not screaming their lungs hoarse in songs that require much less vocal commitment, they do a nice job under the direction of Christopher Ashley. As Katherine, Heidi Blickenstaff channels the insolent postures and snotty attitudes of her daughter with precision, and she’s quite amusing. In the less showy role of Ellie, Emma Hunton spends most of her time bringing adult good sense and reasonable behavior to her daughter’s sloppily clad body. And they are well supported by David Jennings as Katherine’s fiancé Mike, Chris Ramirez as Ellie’s high school dream-hunk Adam, and Jake Heston Miller as Katherine’s young son Fletcher.
But as effective as some of the dialog scenes are, musicals rise and fall on the music. And in this production, the music attacks the audience like a Marine drill sergeant, intent on taking no prisoners. As clever as it is, the songs in this Freaky Friday could lead to Migraine Monday.
Freaky Friday kicks off this year’s New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. The Festival also includes a world premiere play by local playwright Eric Coble, These Mortal Hosts, May 11-20; The Nolan Williams Project, a new musical concert presentation, May 20; and The Chinese Lady, a reading of a new play by Lloyd Suh, May 20.
Through May 20 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com