Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey are famous for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical “Next to Normal,” about a mother whose bipolar disorder shatters her family’s life. With “Freaky Friday,” based on a 1972 children’s novel by Mary Rodgers, Kitt and Yorkey explore the relationships of a mother and daughter who briefly and magically swap bodies.
Soon to be a Disney Channel movie, this updated version, scripted by “Parenthood” writer Bridget Carpenter, is up and running at Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points. Directed by Heidi Cline McKerley, “Freaky Friday” showcases the biggest cast in Horizon’s history. And in the tale of Katherine (Jennifer Alice Acker), a stressed-out single mom on the verge of her second marriage, there’s plenty of material to go around.
As this professional pastry chef prepares for her big day, a reporter from a brides magazine (Randi Garza) arrives to document the scene. If that weren’t stressful enough, Katherine and her teenage daughter, Ellie (Abby Holland), get in a tussle over a giant hourglass (don’t ask), and before you can say “abracadabra,” they get their wish: to trade psyches for “Just One Day.”
And what a day.
Will Katherine make it down the aisle in time? Will Ellie hook up with her crush Adam (Christian Magby)? Will the saucy magazine writer get her story? Will Katherine’s son, Fletcher (played by Joseph Masson on the day I caught the show), get lost in the shuffle?
As the story unspools, Katherine finds herself in biology class, dissecting a frog and strangely attracted to Adam. Ellie, who doesn’t know the difference between the Culinary Institute of America and the Central Intelligence Agency, hasn’t a clue about the showstopping wedding cake her mother has made, nor the vows she has written for her marriage to Mike (Frank Faucette).
It’s a recipe for calamity. And this being a modern fairy tale about children and parenting, a device for whipping up conflict and confronting issues.
With 18 numbers and more than two dozen characters, the show is too busy and populous to go deep, so it uses broad strokes to paint a story with predictable and sentimental outcomes. But in the end, Katherine and Ellie gain empathy and understanding, and their trajectory of loss, anger and resentment switches tracks to one of healing, forgiveness and love.
It’s a hoot to see musical-comedy stalwarts Jill Hames and Jeff McKerley chomp into a variety of smaller roles. Garza, who has had star turns in “Evita” and “Grease” at Serenbe Playhouse, is underused here, but she does get in a few good swipes as a mean-girl Savannah.
Likewise Faucette. A solid actor with strong vocal skills, he is somewhat limited by the scope of his part as a worried groom and soon-to-be-stepfather. Magby, on the other hand, is kinetic, charismatic and hilarious, as a young man seduced by “Women and Sandwiches.”
Acker and Holland have the difficult assignment of portraying a mother and child who are virtually dumbstruck by their predicament. If audiences have a little trouble keeping up with their topsy-turvy shenanigans, imagine how the actors feel. That they pull it off is an impressive feat.
On the design side, Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay contribute a luminous set that switches back and forth between Katherine’s home, Ellie’s high school and other locations, with the city of Chicago looming in the background and a giant clock face reminding us that time is one of the few constants of life.
If you know “Freaky Friday” from the films starring Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris (1976), or Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan (2003), you may not recognize it here. On the upside, Kitt and Yorkey demonstrate that they can pivot from the thoughtful and provocative to the fun and lightweight. The songs are catchy; the message has heart.
Conversations between parents and children can be the most awkward thing in the world. “Freaky Friday” might be an avenue for laughter and letting go.
Through April 22. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $25. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave., Atlanta. 404-584-7450, horizontheatre.com.
Bottom line: Broadway heavyweights loosen up a bit.
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