Center Rep’s ‘Freaky Friday’ is a true original

A jeans-clad teen steps onstage and begins a story of criss-crossed psyches that the audience “just won’t believe.” The cast launches into the show’s theme song Just One Day, and Center Rep’s Freaky Friday has begun.

Based on the story of the same name by Mary Rodgers, Bridget Carpenter’s book could be seen as deceptively simple. But Carpenter keeps pushing the audience to dig deeper for more emotional bounty. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal) are the composer and lyricist.

From the get-go, Olivia Jane Mell had real impact as Ellie, as she introduces an age-old mother/daughter power struggle. Ellie feels trapped by a control freak, and Katherine (mom) wishes her daughter would accept her fiance. Ellie pretends to retch whenever her future stepfather is mentioned.

Katherine (a spot-on performance by Lynda DiVito) wishes for just “one happy, loving family day.”

Just one of the zany surprises in this play pops up next, puppets on his hands: Ellie’s brother, Fletcher (the delightful Tyler Patrick Hennessy). As he sneaks up on her, she whines to her mother: “Fletcher is puppeting me again!”

For those unfamiliar with the two movie versions, mother and daughter are about to switch bodies via a spooky old hourglass. The actual shift was well staged — mother and daughter tussle over the hourglass, stage lights flash, then Bam – switcheroo.

As the play moves into the entree portion of the plot, each character accuses the other of having an oh-so-easy life in  I Got This. They have no choice but to impersonate each other until they can switch back, so mom heads off to school. She primly ties Ellie’s shirt around her neck like a yuppie sweater.

Opportunities for each lead to trash the other in song and dialogue abounded: a parent/teacher conference — mom-as-Ellie says she’s a problem kid. A magazine interview: “How do you balance your work/home life?” Ellie-as-mom: “I ignore my kids!”

In Biology class, mom-as-Ellie rules in Biology class, as only a professional chef can. In Biology, she sings of Adam (Dave Abrams) Ellie’s crush: “my pheromones go fluxing with my tongue.” The clever dance number is easily the funniest in the show.

Now mom-as-Ellie heads off to gym class, while Ellie-as-mom deals with a destroyed wedding cake and a missing Fletcher. Katrina Lauren McGraw (adept in multiple roles) brought freshness and originality playing everyone’s worst nightmare: the gym teacher who has it in for Ellie.

The most harrowingly honest and completely unique part of the show was Parents Lie, a song about unspoken family truths. Kudos to the writers ‘ boldness. “Parents lie because they can; so learn the truth, my bright young man…parents will tell you you’re great and special…when clearly you’re not.” Bible Belt theatergoers will hate this song.

In the penultimate scene, Ellie and Katherine stop for a song when the wedding should have followed immediately. It just felt…off. But this is a minor quibble compared with the musical’s overall excellence.

The leads not only had exceptional voices, but also had mastered physical comedy in a show that demanded a lot of both.

The general vibe was very Disney, featuring bright colors, peppy songs and vintage-feeling choreography. But Freaky Friday’s message is anything but childish and simplistic: the lyrics and book honor the audience’s intelligence. The characters are inundated with complex situations and moral dilemmas at every turn.

The production is powerfully sharp and polished, a tribute to its creators, director (Jeff Collister) and the nine-piece orchestra. Unfortunately, Jennifer Perry’s snappy and eye-catching choreography felt much the same song after song, with actors circling the stage and line dancing. Standout exceptions were the brilliant Biology, which featured classic ballet moves.

Center Rep is helmed by Michael Butler, and strives to produce “emotionally engaging, intellectually involving and visually astonishing live theatre.”

Freaky Friday plays at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek through June 30. Tickets range from $38 to $79, and are available at the Walnut Creek library or at the Lesher Center box office or website.