A mother and daughter switch personalities in a new musical, while sisters cling to each other through heartbreak and happiness in a Jane Austen adaptation — this pair of “grown-up” shows could also be a treat for many kids.
At the center of Freaky Friday, a world premiere musical at Signature Theatre, are two singer-actresses just getting to know each other: Heidi Blickenstaff, who plays the mom, Katherine, and Emma Hunton, who plays the daughter, Ellie. Both actresses are self-described “belters” who say their voices meld so well that they sometimes sound like one.
Created by the “Next to Normal” and “If/Then” team of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, with a script by Bridget Carpenter, the musical is based on the 1972 book by Mary Rodgers, the 1976 movie with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, the 1995 television movie with Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffmann, and the 2003 movie with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis — whew! But it changes a lot of details, including character names and occupations.
“We have the luxury of being able to sort of create these characters from scratch,” Blickenstaff said after a recent rehearsal. “And it’s fun to just sort of be completely 100 percent inventing every day.”
In this version, Katherine is a recently widowed caterer who is about to remarry, not giving her teenage daughter much time to adjust. So when Ellie has to give up a big scavenger hunt to attend her mom’s rehearsal dinner, she’s totally bummed.
“Ellie’s not really great with interacting outside of her two friends . . . she’s kind of a loner and a little bit more awkward than the average teenager,” Hunton said. “It’s so important for her to be seen as normal by the rest of her class, to participate in this scavenger hunt, that when her mom just says no, it’s kind of like, ‘Ugh, there goes any chance I have of fitting in.’ ”
Thus the magical personality “swap,” which Blickenstaff describes as “this amazing idea that Mary Rodgers had to live a day in each other’s shoes, and then they both develop compassion and empathy for the other’s life.”
Before meeting on the first day of rehearsals, Blickenstaff and Hunton had Googled and YouTubed each other, so they had a sense of whom they would be harmonizing with. Both have Broadway and regional credits, and each has experience working with Yorkey and Kitt — Blickenstaff as the troubled mother in a regional production of “Next to Normal,” Hunton as the daughter in that show’s national tour. Now, they say, they’ve found magic together.
“I don’t even know if I want to say this out loud to you,” Blickenstaff said, glancing at Hunton, “but it’s only happened a handful of times in my career, when I’ve sung with people that I’m particularly synergistic with. Our voices sound like one. And there are moments in this where our voices sound like one voice and it’s sort of like . . .” She gasps.
Even though Blickenstaff plays the mom and Hunton the daughter, for most of the show, their characters’ personalities are switched. Blickenstaff, with lifelong perfect posture, must remember to slouch like a teenager, and Hunton to stand up straight. Director Christopher Ashley (who just staged “Come From Away” at Ford’s Theatre) keeps reminding them, Blickenstaff said, to “spend a minute in each other’s skin” during breaks.
Both Blickenstaff and Hunton said that they’re having a blast but that the show, despite its lighthearted tone, is every bit as difficult as the psychologically complex “Next to Normal,” if not more so.
“It’s not just this frothy little musical, like ‘Oh, that’ll be fun to do a little Disney musical,’ ” Blickenstaff said. “It’s a huge acting challenge.”
Recommended for age 8 and older.