This one is going to get personal. Read on.
Saturday evening my mom and I went on a date to see Freaky Friday at the La Jolla Playhouse. A body switching tale that we’re all pretty familiar with at this point. An over bearing, perfectionist mother and an angry, just trying to have fun teen daughter switch bodies until they can learn to love one another. In this version, mom Katherine (played by Heidi Blickenstaff) and daughter Ellie (played by Emma Hunton) lead us through this truly funny and charming rendition.
Mom Katherine, a caterer and recent widow, is about to get re-married and her rehearsal dinner is going to be on the cover of “Weddings” magazine. Daughter Ellie just wants to make it to the city scavenger hunt hosted by her crush Adam on the same night as the rehearsal dinner. They of course switch bodies after breaking a magical hour glass that was given to them by the late father. The only way to get through the day is to keep up with high school, the interview for the magazine, and eventually find the second hour glass that has been sold to an antique store in the city.
This is a true upbeat show, that hits so many right moves and laughs. Blinkenstaff plays an awkward and off the wall teenager, not caring what anyone thinks about her. Hunton is able to bring maturity and logic to the high school world. But let’s talk about something more important.
It’s been a very long time since I have seen a show where the lead looks like me. Hunton is a normal, size 14 and up girl, who fits the role of Ellie perfectly. Despite her obvious talent, we rarely see any plus size girls in leading roles.
I grew up in theatre, always keeping a realistic view about what kind of role I could get. You could be Mrs. Potts, but never Belle. You could be the Fairy Godmother, but never Cinderella. Why? Well your body type, of course. I understand having the right look for a part is important, but does that really mean only skinny girls call fall in love with Prince Charming?
Someone very close to me was told that they were not pretty enough to play a role. It was heartbreaking to see her talent overlooked because of her dress size. Our world is full of all kinds of people that do all kinds of things. So often in theatre we cast in stereotypical tropes and continue to feed into the untrue stereotypes of beauty. I’ve had to work hard to reconstruct a healthy view of what beauty is that was, in part, shaped by my time in theatre. Shouldn’t the stage be a place of acceptance? A place to tell the story of being human which should look way beyond the actor’s weight.
In Freaky Friday, one scavenger hunt clue requires the teens to strip down to their underwear and swim in a fountain. The girls immediately retreat, feeling self conscious about their bodies. Katherine, in Ellie’s body, reprimands them and insists that their bodies are beautiful (and that this is the best it’s going to get). The teens all undress, and proudly dance in the fountain. Emma Hunton is beautiful, and the crowd cheers for her. It was a remarkable moment. Her confidence beamed and the audience loved it.
It was refreshing to see a regular sized girl in a part that wasn’t written for that (like a Hairspray!). So many parts could be played by different sized people. Let’s give our young girls a space where they can dream of being anybody when they grow up. Theatre should be a haven for girls who, in every other sphere, are told to look a certain way. The stage and the community surrounding it have always supported difference, and it’s time to really make this a priority. Seeing Hunton play this role made my heart swell, and I was hopeful for the young girls coming to see the show who would start to embrace their bodies and love themselves the way they are.
I will never play the skinny ingénue, but if I was ever on the other side of the casting table, I would give that size 16 girl a chance to sing for it. Why not? We are not our weight, dress size, or body type. And the stage should reflect the beautiful world around it.
Update: The show has since moved to the Cleveland Playhouse and will be running from April 15th-May 20th.