An enjoyable tale of transformation in North Shore Music Theatre’s ‘Freaky Friday’
BEVERLY – L.P. Hartley’s much-quoted line — “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’’ — might just as accurately apply to the perspective of one generation on another, gazing at each other in mutual perplexity and exasperation.
In “Freaky Friday,’’ a mother and her teenage daughter travel to the “foreign country’’ of each other’s lives, and it proves to be a disconcerting and eye-opening journey for both of them. For the audience at North Shore Music Theatre, this oft-told tale adds up to a frequently enjoyable ride, though one wishes that director Gabriel Barre eased off on the gas pedal once in a while and trusted the material a bit more.
That caveat aside, “Freaky Friday’’ is a likeable summertime diversion that, crucially, stands on its own as a stage creation rather than just another Disney brand extension.
The blue-chip caliber of the musical’s creative team has a lot to do with that. The sharp-witted book is by Bridget Carpenter, who wrote for NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,’’ and the buoyant score is the work of Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics), a songwriting team best-known for a much darker exploration of family dynamics: the Pulitzer-winning “Next to Normal.’’ (Yorkey and Kitt were in the news recently when they quit a planned production of “Magic Mike the Musical’’ that was supposed to premiere at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre this fall.)
With its body-swap gimmick underpinning a tale of mother-daughter reconciliation, “Freaky Friday’’ has proven to have considerable staying power.
First came the 1972 children’s novel by Mary Rodgers, a writer and composer (and, speaking of musicals, the daughter of one Richard Rodgers). That was followed by a film version in 1976 that starred Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, who also appeared in a very different movie — “Taxi Driver’’ (!) — that same year. “Freaky Friday’’ was remade again in 2003, this time starring a never-better Jamie Lee Curtis and a young Lindsay Lohan, shortly before “Mean Girls’’ and a slew of personal struggles. Along the way there was also a 1995 made-for-TV version starring Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman. Finally, in 2016, the musical adaptation came into being.
In the North Shore production, it helps immeasurably that the two lead actresses know how to make the comic moments land while also possessing the vocal skills to bring punch or poignancy to their musical numbers. Lindsay Joan plays rebellious teenager Ellie Blake, missing her deceased father and angry that her mother is poised to remarry. Laurie Wells portrays her exasperated mom, Katherine, trying to prepare for the wedding and a fashion-magazine photo shoot while verbally skirmishing with Ellie.
Their battle escalates into a tussle over a family heirloom — a large hourglass — that breaks and magically transforms Ellie into Katharine, and vice versa. After that happens, each actress adroitly channels the body language, mannerisms, and vocal intonations of the character into whom they’ve been transformed.
When Katharine is transported into the body of Ellie and forced to survive in the shark-infested waters of adolescence, Wells flounces in an amusingly loose-limbed fashion and alters her voice into the aural equivalent of an eye-roll. When Ellie is transported into the body of Katherine and forced to cope with the upcoming nuptials and a puzzled fiancé, Joan stiffens her posture, demeanor, and delivery. Eventually, both come to a new appreciation and understanding of the pressures faced by the other.
Few in the rest of the cast quite rise to the level of Joan and Wells, although Annabelle Fox, as Ellie’s queen-bee nemesis, and Lindsey Alley, as Katherine’s beleaguered assistant, bring considerable spark to their scenes. Gerald Caesar demonstrates charismatic appeal as the youth on whom Ellie harbors a crush. AJ Scott, who is alternating with Jake Ryan Flynn in the role of Ellie’s puppet-obsessed kid brother, is lively and endearing. Sean Hayden’s portrayal of Katherine’s fiance, an admittedly fuzzy character, is lacking in definition.
There’s nothing unclear about the moral and the message of “Freaky Friday,’’ still chugging along after nearly half a century and multiple iterations: If you walk in the shoes of another, whether it’s through the gauntlet of a high-school hallway or along the bumpy pathway of middle age, you’re almost certain to develop a little empathy.
Book by Bridget Carpenter. Music by Tom Kitt. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Based on the novel by Mary Rodgers and the Disney films.
Directed by Gabriel Barre. Choreography, Jennifer Paulson-Lee.
Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly. Through July 21. Tickets $61-$86. 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org