Review by Daniel Hutchings
Things are getting freaky at Chapel Off Chapel, as Theatrical stages the latest musical adaption of the beloved story of Freaky Friday.
If you think you know the story of Freaky Friday, well, you probably do. Disney has adapted the 1972 novel enough times now - with Jodie Foster, Shelley Long, Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan all having taken on roles - this this musical adaption treads a familiar path of a warring mother and daughter who magically switch bodies and in the ensuing day learn to live - literally - in each others shoes. Which is not to say it’s not well worth the watch, especially for fans of any of the previous body-swap comedies.
We open with narration from Ellie, the daughter half of this duo. Ellie’s highly strung mother Katherine is getting married tomorrow, and is - in Ellie’s mind - focused on this to the detriment of her family and the memory of her father. Ellie wants to go on ‘The Hunt’, a scavenger hunt that is occurring that night, which just so happens to be the night of Katherine and new fiancé Mike’s rehearsal dinner. Katherine, meanwhile, is using her own business to cater and plann said wedding, and stressed about an upcoming feature in Weddings Magazine, good publicity her business needs. None of this makes for good timing for a body swap which, with the help of a magic hourglass, is exactly what happens. Now Ellie-as-Katherine has to do the interview, Katherine-as-Ellie has to go to school, and they both have to find the matching hourglass so they can switch back.
Lyla Digrazia and Stephanie Powell as Ellie and Katherine respectively are solid leads and have a wonderful mother-daughter dynamic. Body swap stories always carry the same challenge for the actors - establishing one character and then taking on another for the majority of the show - and Digrazia and Powell nail the swap. Digrazia is a standout of the cast, taking on both roles convincingly and with strong vocals, and audiences should expect to see more of the young star. Amateur theatre veteran Powell is having a lot of fun dipping into her teenage self, and it shows in her infectious performance. They are supported by a strong ensemble, particularly Tach Sutton as Katherine’s assistant Torey, Thomas Martin as Ellie’s crush Adam, and Michael Gray as Mike.
The show itself is a whole lot of fun. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soundtrack - I had expected something more simple from a Disney musical adaptation, and though it is perhaps slightly by the numbers, the writing team of Bridget Carpenter on book, Tom Kitt on music and Brian Yorkey on lyrics deserve credit for creating a catchy and well-written musical. The funky score is also delivered brilliantly by the orchestra, led by musical director Peter Pham Nguyen.
Theatrical’s production, directed by Bronte Regos Thiele, is well done. Part of the appeal of independent, minimalist theatre is seeing how they can get creative with set, and the team are generally able to manipulate the stage through prop and lighting well. Some of these transitions were unpolished, but we can hope that this will change without the nerves of opening night. Likewise, while the ensemble numbers are usually a strength, the stage sometimes felt a little cramped, and I did occasionally get the sense that there were one too many people on stage for Chapel Off Chapel’s smaller space.
While the jokes and set-up of Act 1 land well, it isn’t until Act 2 that the show hits its emotional stride. Ellie is still struggling to deal with the loss of her father, who passed away (‘just say died’) several years ago - but, it becomes clear, so is Katherine, and annoying little brother Fletcher, who show it less. The body swap trope of learning to understand each other is well worn, but adding grief to the equation adds nicely to the resonance, as Ellie learns to adjust to this new family dynamic, while not forgetting her father. Digrazia, Powell and Gray continue to shine in these emotional beats. One of the strongest numbers of the show is ‘Somebody Has Got to Take the Blame’, a parent teacher conference Ellie and Katherine attend as each other, which is a wonderful blend of farce and pathos.
Theatrical’s Freaky Friday is a well done and joyful adaption of a classic story, and one especially kids will enjoy. Families will enjoy this night out to one of Melbourne’s most beloved theatre hotspots.