West Orange High theater students are thrilled to be back on stage this weekend for their production of the musical ‘Freaky Friday.’
Imagine being a teenage girl in those formative years, juggling the task of testing out your newfound independence with simultaneously feeling misunderstood by your nagging mother.
Now, imagine a life-changing moment happens, and you and your mother suddenly switch bodies and get a taste of each other’s lives.
That’s the premise of “Freaky Friday,” originally based on a 1972 novel by Mary Rodgers. It’s also the next show West Orange High theater students are gearing up to bring to life April 28 to May 2.
The musical is West Orange’s third this season, but it’s the first that will allow an in-person audience, even if reduced to 25% capacity. Theater Director Tara Whitman said “Freaky Friday” was on her radar this season for the spring musical for several reasons.
When choosing the spring musical last year, Whitman also didn’t know whether the department would be cleared to have a live audience at all. This particular show would have allowed live-streaming capabilities if necessary. Budget was also a concern.
“We have to rent every microphone, all of the lights, we have to purchase all our own lumber,” she said. “I needed to do something I knew we could manage the bills for, so I was specifically looking for something modern, family-friendly and upbeat after the year this was. My students really enjoy doing something that not every other school does. … ‘Freaky Friday’ is a show that hasn’t had a whole lot of stage time here in town.”
Things look a bit different, of course. Students perform and rehearse the whole show in masks — even when singing, dancing or building sets. Cleanup protocols are stricter and take a bit longer to wipe down all surfaces. For Whitman and her students, though, it’s worth it to be back on stage, and with an upbeat musical at that.
“It’s about a mom and a teen daughter, and they don’t quite see eye to eye,” Whitman said of ‘Freaky Friday.’ “Somehow, they end up changing bodies, so their spirit enters each other’s body, and both of them get to live a day in each other’s shoes, so to speak. It’s a really strong message about family and understanding, and they get to experience the other side of the situation.”
Seniors Isabella Crosby and Peyton Brown, both 17, get to take unique roles with this production. Isabella plays the mom, Katherine, while Peyton plays the daughter, Ellie. However, because of the situation with switching lives, they both play two characters.
“We are incredibly thankful to be friends outside of the theater department, and being able to go on stage and have this actual family relationship with Isabella has been amazing,” Peyton said. “We just go together — our humor bounces back and forth, so the chemistry is definitely present on stage. Basically we are playing two separate characters — but also the same characters — so we had to learn to make it believable so when do switch.”
“A lot of communication is involved, so the transition is almost seamless,” Isabella said. “That way, when I become the teenager, I’m the same teenager that Peyton was before, and we’re carrying that character through the entire show, and they’re always present no matter whose body they’re in.”
A lot of hard work and dedication goes into being able to play two characters. The same can be said for the entire theater department, Whitman said.
“The highlight ... is just seeing students’ dedication,” she said. “We’re moving and grooving, we’re joking, we’re laughing, we’re working hard, and the full production is just the highlight. Getting to do a show and being able to send my seniors off with a show after losing their spring musical last year — and then every trip we normally go on, every dance — all of these things that are special for seniors are just gone. To give the seniors in theater something to look forward to is really wonderful.”
That extends to the band members, too. Some of them will be accompanying the theater department with a live set.
Then, there are the technical elements of the production, and everything is designed and built by students.
“I really put an emphasis on that because the quality is so unbelievably high that I feel people do not believe me when I tell them students designed them,” Whitman said. “The work is getting done by their hands and their creativity, and that’s really important to me. That makes it so highly impressive.”