Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Freaky Friday
Hale Centre Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Hope Niven and Heidi-Liz Johnson
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw
The Walt Disney Company has had great success adapting their hit animated films into hit musicals, but a few of their live action films have also been turned into crowd-pleasing shows. Newsies and High School Musical have both found an extensive life in regional theatre and youth productions, and one of their most recent live action stage adaptations, the comical fantasy Freaky Friday, was turned into a TV musical and has also been produced by numerous regional theatre companies. With two talented leads who portray the mother and daughter who find themselves inhabiting each other's bodies, Hale Centre Theatre's production of Freaky Friday is a warm, winning and very funny crowd pleaser that beautifully balances the comedy and emotion in this humorous, heartfelt show.

The plot focuses on the mother-daughter duo of Katherine and Ellie Blake, who constantly argue and get on each other's nerves. Katherine is a multitasking control freak who is doing everything for her upcoming wedding, which is just a day away, including making the cake. Ellie is a teenager who is more concerned with her friends and boys than her studies. She is especially focused on one boy in particular: Adam, who is running "The Hunt," the annual scavenger hunt that Ellie is desperate to participate in even though it means that she'll miss her mother's wedding rehearsal dinner.

The two get into a heated disagreement, as they both profess that they don't understand each other, and when a sentimental object they are holding mysteriously breaks, they discover that they have magically swapped bodies. Will Katherine and Ellie be able to find a way to switch back before Katherine's wedding the next day, while navigating the demands of school, work, a parent teacher conference, and the impending wedding?

The musical is based on Mary Rodgers' 1972 novel as well as the 1976 movie, the 1995 made-for-TV remake, and the 2003 film remake. The screen versions made changes and added new elements, characters, and plot twists to Rodgers' original story and for the musical, Bridget Carpenter also added some fun updates. She kept the wedding plot from the 2003 film but added in the scavenger hunt subplot and the idea that is the impetus of the body swap, as well as updating the story for the cell-phone era. Those updates work very well to keep the plot fresh while also providing some fun modern changes for those who are fans of the films or the book. Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics) have crafted a fun, driving score that combines modern rock and pop styles with traditional musical theatre ballads, though a few of the songs are just average. The score, while charming and upbeat, never comes close to the brilliance they showed with their songs for Next to Normal, which won them the Tony for Best Score and the Pulitzer Prize.

Director Cambrian James does an excellent job ensuring the emotional story at the core of the show isn't lost under the humor and fantasy elements. His leads are perfect, as is the rest of the cast, and he also keeps the show moving along at a brisk pace, with scene changes that whisk by. His choreography is modern, fresh and fun. Dr. Cathy Hauan's music direction achieves clear, bright sounds from the entire cast.

Heidi-Liz Johnson and Hope Niven are exceptional as Katherine and Ellie, respectively. While the body swap happens toward the beginning of the show, they both get just enough time to create realistic characters so when they switch, you instantly see how they are now completely different individuals. They both use fun and numerous changes in their body language and facial expressions to make the change not only believable but also hilarious. Ellie wears sneakers, so seeing Johnson trying to walk in her mother's wedge shoes once the body switch happens is just one thing that adds to the hijinks. This is Johnson's 25th Hale show and she delivers another flawless performance. This is Niven's first Hale show and she is just as good as Johnson. Both actresses have superb singing voices that soar, assured line delivery that makes every joke land, and they make excellent acting decisions that ensure the emotion in the relationships their characters have with each other, their family members, and their friends is real. It's a joy to witness Johnson instantly change before our eyes from the uptight mom to the teenager who talks back and is full of sass while Niven morphs from the confrontational teen to the caring mother.

As the men in their lives, Mychal Leverage is very good as Mike, Katherine's fiancé, Riley Thornton is charming and warm, with a rich singing voice, as Adam, and Zacary Nelson is absolutely adorable as Ellie's younger brother Fletcher. Evening Calabrese is fun as Katherine's overworked and always anxious assistant Torrey; Annie Heartney and Josephine Malsonado are bright and delightful as Ellie's best friends; and Jonice Bernard is appropriately nasty as Ellie's rival Savannah. The small supporting cast do a wonderful job, including Bennett Wood, Alice Johnson, Sarah Cleeland, Raymond Barcelo, and Adam Guinn, who easily navigate their way through portraying multiple roles, and Payten McLeod, Hugh Hocknull, and Olivia Woodward Shaw, who play Ellie's classmates.

Hale's creative elements are always excellent. Brian Daily's set design effectively uses several large moving pieces to depict the interior of Katherine's high-end kitchen, the rooms and hallways at Ellie's high school, and several other locations in the show. Tia Hawkes's character perfect costumes are bright and modern and Cambrian James' wigs and makeup designs help the ensemble quickly play several roles with ease. The lighting design by Tim Dietlein uses a range of colors and hues that work well with Daily's set and Jessica Ottley's simple but effective projections to successfully portray the many locations and times of day in the show. McKenna Carpenter's props are abundant and realistic, especially the sentimental object that is at the center of the body swap. Josh Lindblom's sound design allows for every word and lyric to be heard with a crisp clarity.

Freaky Friday is fast paced and funny, but it is also an emotional story that shows how becoming another person for a short period of time, or at least living in their body, could open your eyes and make you appreciate them better once you experience the obstacles they face in their lives. With an exceptional cast, spotless direction, fun choreography, and rich creative elements, Hale Center Theatre's production is a winner.

Freaky Friday runs through August 14, 2021, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. For tickets and information, visit or call 480-497-1181

Producers and Casting Directors: David and Corrin Dietlein
Director/Choreographer: Cambrian James
Music Director: Dr. Cathy Hauan

Set Technical Director: Brian Daily
Lighting Designer: Tim Dietlein
Costume Designer: Tia Hawkes
Head Prop and Paint Designer: McKenna Carpenter
Sound Design: Josh Lindblom
Wigs and Makeup: Cambrian James
Projection Designer: Jessica Ottley
Audio Engineer: Gary Towne
Stage Manager: Josh Lindblom
Dance Captain: Sarah Cleeland

Ellie Blake: Hope Niven
Katherine Blake: Heidi-Liz Johnson
Fletcher Blake: Zacary Nelson
Mike: Mychal Leverage
Adam: Riley Thornton
Torrey: Evening Calabrese
Gretchen: Annie Heartney
Hannah: Josephine Malsonado
Savannah: Jonice Bernard
Parker: Payten McLeod
Wells: Hugh Hocknull
Laurel: Olivia Woodward Shaw
Louis / Adam (Swing): Bennett Wood
Danielle/Ms. Meyers/Officer Sitz: Alice Johnson
Mrs. Luckingbill/Grandma/Mrs. Time: Sarah Cleeland
Grandpa/Mr. Blumen/Senor O'Brien: Raymond Barcelo
Dr. Ehrin/Officer Kowalski/Pastor Bruno: Adam Guinn