Five years after La Jolla Playhouse staged Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s exhausting An Iliad, New Village Arts in Carlsbad is taking a crack at it under the direction of Jacole Kitchen, who assistant-directed two productions at the Playhouse last year. At NVA, Linda Libby is The Poet, a role usually played by a man in An Iliad. (An accompanying double-bass player, in this case Gunnar Biggs, is the only other performer on stage.) Like the Poets before her, Libby breathlessly recounts and re-enacts the blood and guts of the Trojan War, integrating into the 90 or so minutes fatalistic insight into all the world’s wars since. An Iliad, an adaptation of Homer’s epic, unfolds like a grim ancient-history class. At NVA, “Professor” Libby stammers a little but makes her point: war is hell.
A la Disney, which developed the new musical adaptation of Freaky Friday, La Jolla Playhouse’s production is sunny and squeaky clean, its wackiness couched in feel-good, family-style lesson learning. You know the lesson learners by now after a children’s book, two feature films and a TV-movie: a disconnected mom and daughter who inexplicably find themselves in each other’s body for a day.
This Freaky Friday, directed by Christopher Ashley with a clever book by Bridget Carpenter, updates the familiar premise with scripted messages about teen-girl body image and female empowerment. As enacted by Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton as mother Katherine and daughter Ellie, the identity games are comical if not back-slapping, though Blickenstaff’s performance is sensational. Totally tuned in to teenage talk and mannerisms, she makes count every second on stage as the daughter in the mother’s body. Freaky Friday’s music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, however, are a far cry from their towering 2009 Next to Normal collaboration. One number, “Women and Sandwiches,” is outright shuddering, and Freaky Friday’s overly sincere ballads interrupt the antics more than do they layer the story. Still, this is a show that moms and daughters will enjoy and maybe bond over. Nothing wrong with that.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.