With a society that only seems to become more fast-paced and focused with each passing day, sometimes it’s difficult to pull away from the slipstream and take time to level with those around you, especially when it comes to family and life at home.
Everyone’s busy, everyone has their own concerns, and empathy, though great in principle, isn’t always utilized in action, as made clearly evident in the popular storyline of “Freaky Friday,” now showing on the Jewel Box Stage of the Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy.
The concept of walking in someone else’s shoes, whether literally or otherwise, has been around for ages, and is shown in vivid, hilarious and touching detail in “Freaky Friday,” a tale first penned by Mary Rodgers in 1972 before being picked up by Walt Disney productions for a 1976, 1995, 2003 and 2008 film. Because clearly every decade of parent and child could use a few comic antics to coach them on interpersonal relationships, seriously.
In each take on the tale, an argument between mother and daughter comes to a head and whether through mystical amulets, a fortune cookie, the powers of Friday the 13th or, as is the case in the latest movie and Broadway musical, a magical hourglass, the duo swap spaces for the most literal chance to walk in each other’s shoes: a body swap.
That trouble quickly bubbles to the surface in the Broadway incarnation of the tale when daughter Ellie is denied repeatedly her chance to participate in “The Hunt,” a school-wide scavenger hunt that takes place across Chicago. Which also, incidentally, is happening at the same time as the rehearsal dinner for her mom, Katherine’s, wedding to Mike.
According to Rodger Sorensen in his Director’s Notes on the show, “The story is launched when in the middle of their fight in the opening scene Ellie and Katherine both sing, ‘How I wish you’d understand and see the world my way for just one day.’ Instantly their souls change bodies, and the old adage, ‘Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes’ becomes the major theme of the story, while ‘the hunt’ and ‘the wedding’ become its driving forces. Ellie and Katherine are hunting a magic hourglass they believe will return their souls to their rightful bodies.”
“When I found out they were doing (“Freaky Friday”), I just went and listened to it and was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is my show, I need to do this!’ ” said Bailee Morris, a Vineyard resident and Brigham Young University music, dance, theater grad who tackles the role of Katherine Blake on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“I think I just love her transformation,” Morris said of her passion for the part. “I mean, it’s tricky because I am playing two different characters: At the beginning I’m the mom, then the daughter because her soul is inside my body, so for the majority of the show I’m playing a teenager (while) the other person playing Ellie, she has my soul inside her body. We really come to such an understanding of each other and find compassion. They realize maybe my mom, maybe my daughter, really are doing their best even when it seems like they’re trying to ruin my life.”
In the show, Katherine is dealing with the stress of planning, catering and executing her own wedding with the opportunity to be featured on the cover of a magazine hovering over her head and pressing perfection. Meanwhile, Ellie, who is only four years past the death of her dad, is struggling in school dealing with bullies, demanding teachers, teenage hormones and, of course, the repressed anger she still feels about the death. After the body swap, bit by bit and song by song, the two come to understand each other a little bit better as they strive for a solution to restore some semblance of normalcy to their lives.
“I think everything should be a musical,” Morris said of the music-packed production. “I love music and I think it adds such an incredible layer to any story. Music in this though, really, some shows feel like music just sits there as plain entertainment, while in this show, the music really drives the plot line. It encourages the story instead of just being there. You can think, ‘Oh, this is a pretty song with a fun choreography section,’ but actually it’s really poignant to the story. I love the music in this show.”
As the music drives the story, Morris said careful observation drives her characters, and she spent plenty of time working with Utah County’s Scout Smith, who plays Ellie Blake in the same cast, to find a common ground between characteristics for each individual.
“We’re constantly in each other’s brains trying to figure it out, to try and make that very different so the audience sees that switch is also a huge challenge. We can’t just look like the same person when we change bodies, so it’s finding how to do that without being over the top and unrealistic.”
Another layer comes as the characters address the audience to narrate the show and interact with each other as well as working to maintain their character. It’s been a challenge Morris said she can relate to her personal life as a mother of a 2- and 4-year-old.
“I sort of feel like, ‘Gosh, I really don’t understand the whole teenager thing, but some things really correlate.’ My daughter just outside told me I’m the meanest in the world, and I realized, ‘It’s OK for you to think that right now.’ ”
Morris said it was a good reminder that sometimes our automatic responses aren’t the best answers and we can realize that instead of just blowing things off with a “complete misunderstanding of what the other is feeling.”
“I hope (the audience) leaves feeling like A: they really are doing a good job in whatever role they’re in, and realize, ‘You know what, of course I made mistakes but I’m doing OK.’ I also hope they come away feeling a lot more compassion for others they judge harshly, as well as for those they assume the worst in. I think that everyone is going to love this show. I think that those who don’t see it when it’s finished will really miss out on something great. It’s a tearjerker that will really make you laugh, and it’s very relatable.”
After taking my own mom, who is currently in town visiting, with me to the show, I can say that Morris hit the mark across the board with her list of takeaways.
Though we ended up seeing the Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday cast on stage and missed out on the chance to see Morris in action, Bailee Johnson as Ellie and Korianne Orton Johnson as Katherine did a stunning job of swapping souls in a way that was not only believable (which is quite a credit to their acting abilities), but also in a way that was touching, and left us fluctuating between laughing and on the verge of tears.
Morris hit the nail on the head with the importance of music in carrying the plot, with some of our standout favorites being “I Got This,” the song immediately following the body swap, “Oh, Biology” as Katherine in Ellie’s body must tackle school and teen hormones, “Busted,” as the duo uncover some secrets about one another, “Women and Sandwiches” as Ellie’s crush Adam explains to her younger brother Fletcher how women are like sandwiches and “Go,” where Adam makes “The Hunt” a whole lot deeper than just finding things.
“It’s not the finding, but the searching, what you find, you’ll never see. Not the being, but becoming, one you are, you’ll never be. Not the winning, but the wishing, wishes end when you have won. Not the ending, but beginning, and we’ve only just begun.”
The song comes as the show climaxes, following the stress of losing Fletcher and the desperate need to locate a second hourglass that could return the mother/daughter duo to normal.
A lot of credit goes to the young Toby Worland as Fletcher, Neal C. Johnson as fiancé Mike, Melissa Ivy Summers as Katherine’s assistant Torrey and especially Zack Elzey as the titular Adam for truly creating an experience on stage. It was incredible to see the entire cast, including these actors and more, working seamlessly together to move sets, shift reality and truly draw the audience into their world, emotional investment included.
It was a unique but difficult return to high school and a catchy foray into the ups and downs of familial relationships with the perfect clincher at the end: love. “Freaky Friday” will run at the Hale Centre Theatre through Aug. 24 with more details and tickets at hct.org.