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Review: Musical 'Freaky Friday' a strong start to Slow Burn season at Broward Center

SouthFlorida.com correspondent

The late writer-composer Mary Rodgers – daughter of Broadway legend Richard Rodgers and mother of “Light in the Piazza” composer Adam Guettel – had a gold mine of an idea in 1972 when she wrote “Freaky Friday.”

Rodgers’ novel about a warring mom and teen daughter who magically swap bodies has been the basis for a 1976 movie, a 1995 TV movie, the much-loved 2003 movie remake starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, a 2016 stage musical by “next to normal” Pulitzer winners Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, and a Disney Channel version of the musical that began airing in August.

Nothing like walking a mile (or more) in someone else’s body to break down barriers and build up empathy.

Slow Burn Theatre is kicking off its 2018-1019 season in the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater with the recent musical by composer Kitt, lyricist Yorkey and book writer Bridget Carpenter.

Starting a season with a fresh take on a family-friendly story that has enduring name recognition is a smart move. Even smarter is director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater’s casting of his two leads: six-time Carbonell Award nominee Laura Hodos as the busy and beleaguered mom, Kimmi Johnson as her moody teen daughter.

Skilled and charismatic performers, Hodos and Johnson are the anchors and treasures of Slow Burn’s “Freaky Friday.” Watching them work is such a pleasure that you can almost (but not quite) forget that this pleasant, commercially minded musical doesn’t come anywhere close to what Kitt and Yorkey achieved in their daring “next to normal.”

The character names and certain plot elements seem to change from one version of “Freaky Friday” to the next. Here, widowed mom Katherine (Hodos) juggles running a catering company, parenting the rebellious Ellie (Johnson) and her puppet-loving little brother Fletcher (Brayden Labgold-Carroll), and putting the finishing touches on her imminent wedding to the kids’ kind stepfather-to-be Mike (J.R. Coley).

When Katherine and Ellie get into a tug-of-war over an antique hourglass that was a gift from Ellie’s late dad, the body swap happens and the hourglass breaks. Until they can figure out what to do and/or find another magical hourglass, the two are stuck with pretending to be each other. That’s the source of the show’s comedy and its lessons in mindful empathy.

Trapped in Ellie’s body, Katherine goes to high school where she experiences bullying from mean girl Savannah (Samantha O’Donnell), belittling comments from her teachers and the attentions of the dreamy Adam (Chris Robertson), who’s about to lead a cell phone linked scavenger hunt. She also discovers to her horror that Ellie has acquired an unauthorized tattoo.

But the surprises go both ways.

When the outspoken Ellie-as-Katherine keeps acting weird and immature, her long-suffering catering company assistant Torrey (Christina Groom) fetches the boss’ secret stash of cigarettes from a kitchen cabinet. So both mom and daughter are, as one song goes, “Busted.” The Ellie version of Katherine is also repulsed by Mike’s attentions, and after she lays out her world view to Fletcher in the song “Parents Lie,” the 10-year-old runs away.

Nothing really surprising happens in “Freaky Friday” on the way to its reliable, love-is-the-real-magic ending. The show’s pleasures lie in some of Fitzwater’s clever staging – “Watch Your Back,” in which the kids in gym class do a number with huge exercise balls, is a standout – and in the singing and comedic finesse of the two leads.

The vocally powerful Hodos delivers one of her best South Florida performances, mining Ellie-as-Katherine for laughs large and subtle. Johnson, so memorable in Zoetic Stage’s “Fun Home,” is thoroughly sympathetic and persuasive as the still-grieving Ellie and the mother who gains insight into the complexities of her daughter’s life.

The women get fine support from Coley as the rock-solid Mike, Robertson as Ellie’s crush Adam (his voice is glorious), the broadly comic Groom as Torrey, Courtney Post and Sara Elizabeth Grant as Ellie’s best friends, Labgold-Carroll as sweet Fletcher (though the young actor tends to rush his dialogue), O’Donnell as the relentlessly mean Savannah, and versatile ensemble members Chris Alvarez, Rebeca Diaz, Mike Dinwiddie, Sahid Pabon, Nicole Piro, James Skiba, Corey Vega and Kelly Ziegler. A live seven-piece orchestra holds forth from the pit.

The work of Carbonell-winning set designer Michael McClain is usually a highlight of any show he helps bring to life, but this time is a rare misfire. Placed in a lighted frame of shifting colors, with a light-up Chicago cityscape as background, the show shifts scenes by sliding set pieces (Katherine’s kitchen, the high school biology lab and gym) in and out of the glowing frame. Not a fan.

Thomas M. Shorrock designed the lighting, and Rachelle Hough created the often ear-blistering sound design. As always, Slow Burn’s Rick Peña is responsible for the large array of just-right costumes, including Katherine’s pretty knee-length wedding dress.

Slow Burn’s young-skewing audience and those long familiar with the “Freaky Friday” franchise seem thoroughly entertained by the production. But for me, the magic found in a so-so show flows from the strong work of Hodos and Johnson.

“Freaky Friday” is a Slow Burn Theatre production running through Nov. 4 in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee 1 p.m. Oct. 24). Tickets cost $47-$60. To order, call 954-462-0222 go to www.browardcenter.org.

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