This is not your typical “Disney” musical. Is it fun? Are there big, splashy musical numbers? Is there a loopy, suspend your disbelief premise? Yes, yes and yes. But what becomes clear when talking about the upcoming spring musical at SPHS with its cast, crew and director is that the show is rooted in compassion, love and the pain and complexity of grief. In fact, they instructed me to advise audiences to definitely bring tissues! Consider yourself warned.
“Freaky Friday is the original body swap story – pre-dated “Big” and all those fun 80’s films,” explains director Nick Hoffa. “This time it’s a mother and daughter who switch places. It’s fun and funny, definitely a comedy, but this story is really about family and grief. They lost their father and husband years earlier and have been struggling since then.” The freaky Friday in question is the day before mother, Katherine, is set to marry Mike, which brings about a family crisis between mother and daughter, Ellie. “Through the magic of Disney,” Hoffa explains with a laugh, “they swap bodies and fun and chaos ensues. It’s really about this old version of the family learning how to be a new family and the central question is, can they? It’s actually incredibly high stakes – it’s a small story that is universal. We all have struggles in our families so it’s very relatable and it’s about how does this family learn to be together. So even though it’s funny and fun, there is a real heartache that needs to get resolved.”
I’m not surprised. Hoffa has never not chosen stories that have a real heart at their core and it sounds like in this story, mother and daughter have an emotional journey to take.
Hoffa says he always looks for strong ensemble shows but he’s had this one on his radar for several years because, he explains, “as a parent and as a child of a parent, there is something so moving about the last part of the show and how much it taps into what does it mean to be in a relationship with a family member.”
Ellie is in high school and the entire family is beginning to gather for the forthcoming wedding, so there is a large ensemble cast of 37 friends, teachers and family that make for several big, ensemble musical numbers choreographed by Courtney Cheyne.
“I’m thrilled at the way this cast has embraced the show,” says Hoffa. “I didn’t know if they were going to see what I see in this show, as a parent – because it’s really quite an emotionally sophisticated show. And they are having a blast – super nice, great group of kids and they are so prepared and are working extremely hard.”
The music is most likely unfamiliar to most but Hoffa assures that we will walk away humming the tunes and wanting to find it! “The music is so catchy and fun. The music was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning authors of “Next to Normal” (Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey) and the book is by Bridget Carpenter, the co-executive producer and writer on TV hits, “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood”. I think audiences will walk out singing the songs and I think they will have a really good time and they’ll be some tissues needed, by the parents at least.”
Senior Kyra Nielsen, who is supervising producer along with Eugenie Borredon, oversees an 11 member producing crew and has been involved with producing shows since her freshman year. She got involved with drama to be close to older sister, Kayla, and found that producing was aligned with her task oriented strengths of organization and list building. “I love working with costumes and props – it’s a really creative outlet for me. Producing in our program is very student led. Mr. Hoffa talks to us in the beginning to set some goals for the show and then it’s just off to the students.” Indeed the students create and curate everything you will see on stage from props to costumes, sets, lights and sound, hair and make-up.
Senior Asha Quibilan tells us, “I play the body of Ellie but when we switch bodies I play the mother in Ellie’s body. I feel more connected to the teenage character because I am one but when we started to get into character with Mr. Hoffa he had us copy each other’s walk and mannerisms. Sometimes Mr. Hoffa gets confused as to who he has to talk to when he’s giving character direction.” They all say it has been confusing but assure us that we as the audience will get it.
“I’ve learned a lot about being more compassionate,” Quibilan explains “because the musical is really about how sometimes we forget how much we’re hurting each other and how much we are hurting. Sometimes it takes switching bodies to really realize that. To be kind to each other. It’s given me more compassion for my mom and our relationship.”
“It’s been relatable for us because we are teenagers playing teenagers but it’s been fun exploring the differences,” says Alexa Morales who plays Ellie’s best friend, Gretchen. “For example my character is very emo and dark and in real life I dress like a librarian, so it’s not me at all and that’s the fun of doing the musical. From Shrek to this has been a shift because with Shrek it was just fun and I didn’t worry too much about character because, you know, I was a white rabbit,” she laughs. “Mr. Hoffa showed us a clip from the Green Day musical (American Idiot) and said, ‘see how everyone looks like they have a story behind them? That’s how you need to be.’ That was intimidating but we’ve worked on our stories and just being in character every second we’re on stage.”
“The show is about family” says Nielsen, “it’s about building strong bonds with your family and remembering that they are what’s important.”
“And compassion,” says Quibilan. “Sometimes in our families we forget that we have our own problems and we can get angry and say things that are out of line – but it’s important that we be kind to each other first and foremost. It can be hard to resolve issues and things often get thrown under the rug and we forget that we’ve hurt each other and I think that’s very evident in this show where this grief has been thrown under the rug and Ellie has become really angry and the whole family is still grieving.”
“I love the dynamic between Ellie and her little brother,” adds Morales. “He’s very funny but you don’t realize that he’s having this whole internal crisis – so it just shows how everyone is going through something.”
The mood was bittersweet as these seniors reflected on their past four years in drama knowing this is their final show. “This is my first musical because I was cast in the musical as a freshman and it was cancelled because of Covid,” says Quibilan. “I remember that year how the Little Theatre just felt like home, especially at that time when Covid was happening and we were all confused and scared but I felt so grounded in this community. And this year I can say the same – I’ve made such good friends and I love this community. Most of them I’ve known since middle school and this is where we get to connect and perform together. It’s so much fun.”
Morales agrees “well, we actually go all the way back to Lion King Jr., our 5th grade musical! And like Asha said, this has always been my safety net and home – I’m having a crappy day, I go talk to Hoffa. The stress of the musical is my favorite kind of stress. I’m stressing out about college but I know I can shut my mind off and focus when I come to the musical. I’m going to miss that so much. I mean, it’s low stakes, Mr. Hoffa’s going to love us no matter what! I don’t think we’ll ever have that feeling again. But to collaborate with everyone to create one piece of art is very rewarding at the end of the day.”
Sebastian Liebe, who plays Mike chimes in, “because it’s my last show I want to make it the best possible and I think everyone agrees, at least all the seniors, this is it, we gotta make this the best possible and I think that’s really going to show on stage. I don’t really get sad when I think about this because the cast has so many talented people in it – there are so many people that I know I’m going to see performing stuff in the future – and that’s an exciting part of the journey.”
“I’m going to miss watching everybody and seeing what everybody can do,” says Nielsen, “ever since freshman year it’s been a new set of people each year that I get to watch and be amazed by and I think watching them come out and shine has been so cool to see that happen. It’s going to be sad to see this end.” Morales hopes that everyone in the cast and crew feels loved and appreciated saying, “every single one of them has put in the work and none of us would be able to do the bigger roles if it weren’t for them and their support and everyone’s dedication to the production. It belongs to all of us and I hope they come out of it with a real sense of accomplishment.”
“So much of school is focused on individual projects but with the musical it’s one big project we’ve all been working on” echoes Liebe, “it’s a very collaborative process – it’s everybody together. We all hope it goes well but I also think we all trust each other and I think we’re going to do the best job we can.”
“I appreciate how seriously Mr. Hoffa has taken this show, even though it’s a Disney musical and there are some very “Disney” lines, there’s a very real story at the heart of it,” says Quibilan.
“It is a show about loss and the idea that you don’t want to forget about something and so you hold onto it really hard,” says Morales. “And we see Ellie really coming to terms with it and watching each of them coming to understand each other from the other’s perspective and it’s super cool.”
And for the audience they had this to say – “bring tissues. Yeah, I cried,” says Nielsen. “People should bring their families to this” says Liebe, “it’s a show you should see with your family.”
“You find yourself and you find your family in these characters,” echoes Morales, “they should come ready to bust a move but also to cry and contemplate.” Adds Nielsen, “I hope they go hug their families.”
“Freaky Friday” directed by Nick Hoffa, with musical direction by Wylder Reinman, choreography by Courtney Cheyne, and technical direction by James Jontz, runs Friday April 21 and Saturday April 22 at 7pm, with a matinee performance Sunday April 23 at 2PM. Anderson Auditorium, South Pasadena High School, 1401 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena, Calif. General admission is $20, $10 for children. Only cash at the door. Advanced tickets may be purchased online. Visit to SouthPasDrama.com for tickets and information on all things SPHS Drama.