‘Freaky Fri­day’ a strong start to Slow Burn sea­son

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - ON STAGE - By Chris­tine Dolen

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 pup­pet­lov­ing 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-asKather­ine 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-the­real-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 Laura Ho­dos and Kimmi John­son play a mother and daugh­ter who swap bod­ies in Slow Burn The­atre’s “Freaky Fri­day.” 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 still­griev­ing 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 sev­en­piece 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.

RO­DRIGO BALFANZ / COUR­TESY

Kimmi John­son in Slow Burn The­atre’s “Freaky Fri­day” at the Broward Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts.

MICHAEL U / COUR­TESY

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