Get ‘Freaky’ with Valley Youth Theatre at the Herberger

freaky friday 01by Rebecca Rudnyk

An overbearing and overly-critical single mother. Widowed and on the cusp of remarriage. A daughter still mourning the loss of her father, in defiant rebellion of all structure in her life, and dealing with all the struggles that come along with being a young girl in the last years of high school. A tale of switched identities, wherein the main characters literally walk in the other’s shoes, yielding a compassion and understanding between mother and daughter that could not have existed otherwise.

Freaky Friday is a story familiar to most (if not all of us) thanks to the original 1972 book by Mary Rodgers, and its subsequent film adaptations, most recently in 2003 starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan. The musical version premiered on stage in Virginia in late 2016, with a cast album released in 2017 and a Disney Channel Original Movie airing in 2018.

On paper, Freaky Friday is not my favorite piece. The work itself in not particularly profound. The music is not infectiously catchy or entirely memorable. And yet this iteration is pretty darn great thanks to the beautiful performances, ingenious set designs, and the inherent magic that VYT has the uncanny ability to inject into everything it touches.

There is a large cast of over 30, most of them teenagers. The outliers are adorable Asher Stubbs, who is only 11 and plays Fletcher, the little brother and son of the main (switched) characters, and a small handful of the grown ups are also played by performers who are no longer in their teens. The sizable company maintains synchronized step and harmony throughout the several large group numbers. And the major parts are all skillfully and professionally performed.

Riley Thornton is sweet and charmingly shallow as Adam, Ellie’s crush. Adam is a somewhat perplexing character. With his most defining character feature in Act One being that he eats Ellie’s lunch every day. But Thornton is convincing as the popular high school boy, adored by Ellie, who ultimately helps realign things because of his affinity for Ellie… and her mother’s sandwiches.

Sarah Ambrose is quite stunning as Katherine Blake, the mother who spends much of the show as her teenage daughter trapped in a grown woman’s body. Blake has physical mannerisms and facial expressions that are powerful enough to reach everyone in the audience, no matter where they are seated. She demonstrates a keen ability to reach out and touch people with her performance, and provoke emotional responses. Ambrose is a powerhouse, while maintaining the ability to make it look and feel effortless.

Within this large cast full of so much talent, there is a stand out brightest gem. This is in no way meant to diminish the other stellar performances, but to recognize that actors and actresses are sometimes lucky enough to be cast in roles that showcase their full potential. And Kate Brink as Ellie is precisely that role. Brink’s vocal range is in its sweetest spot as Ellie. She makes the transition between mother and daughter (very different characters) seamless and highly believable. And Brink’s ability and success at portraying Ellie is perhaps the biggest burden this show bears. She is the foundation upon which the show is built. So it is vital that the role is done well. And it is done well by Brink.

Valley Youth Theatre is one of those very special institutions that quietly and slowly injects a positive impact into our community over time, under the radar for most. Developing and churning out new generations of local talent. Some of the kids that train and perform with VYT end up on Broadway, or winning Academy Awards. It is an institution that fosters the youth and our community and provides them with the tools they need to survive and excel in the competitive world of entertainment. Thus I hold each marvelous presentation as an opportunity to encounter the future generations of our theatre community making their way into our shared cultural experience.

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Freaky Friday is playing in the Center Stage playhouse at the Herberger Theater Center downtown, one of my very favorite playhouses in the entire city, through June 30. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 602-252-8497. There are shows in the upcoming season that are sure to be VYT standouts, including Matilda and Peter Pan, so it may be worth discussing your options to purchase a package that will provide a deal to see them.

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