At Wilbur Cross, A Drama Club's Freaky, Joyful, Magic Return To The Stage

Lucy Gellman | March 2nd, 2022

At Wilbur Cross, A Drama Club's Freaky, Joyful, Magic Return To The Stage

Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Public Schools  |  Theater  |  Wilbur Cross High School

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Noah Brown as Adam and Nina Laverty as Ellie Blake in Freaky Friday. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Biology class was in full swing. At a long desk, student Ellie Blake threw her scarf over one shoulder, looked down, and sliced into a frog, her classmates marveling at the precision with which she worked. Across the table, her peer Adam watched in awe, making his way over to her side of the table. He leaned in to watch. It seemed, for a moment, like everything was in order.   

Except Ellie was actually her mom Katherine, trapped in her teenage daughter’s body. And it was the day before Katherine’s second marriage, with a long to-do list at home. And Katherine was both acing high school, and remembering how hard that hormone-induced haze of adolescence made it to concentrate on much of anything.

And they were going to have to sing and dance their way through it.

Welcome to a magic, joyful, moving and at times laugh-out-loud funny Freaky Friday: The Musical, running at Wilbur Cross High School Friday March 4 through Sunday March 6. A project of the Lights Up Drama Club, it marks the first performance back on the school's stage in exactly two years. Now that they are back—and with two years of unexpected pandemic knowledge beneath their mics and costumes—both students and their mentors have learned to take nothing for granted.

Tickets and showtimes are available here.

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Choreographer Jennifer Kaye, Music Director Matt Durland, and Co-directors Heather Bazinet and Salvatore DeLucia.

“The joy of it is just that we get to be here,” said Heather Bazinet, who co-directs Lights Up with English and drama teacher Salvatore DeLucia, in an interview at the school Monday night. “Just that we get to be together, and to create something. It's been a little while.”

Holding fast to that joy has become a fixture in every part of the process. The show, set on the same stage where How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying became a very early casualty of Covid-19 in March 2020, is double cast to give graduating seniors a chance to step into the lead roles they’ve missed out on. While Bazinet and DeLucia have stayed on as co-directors, they have turned crew responsibilities over to students, so that juniors and seniors are now teaching freshman who spent two years of middle school on screens.

It has made the musical feel surprisingly timely. Based on Mary Rodgers's 1972 children’s book and the 1976, 1995, 2003 and 2018 Disney movie of the same name, Freaky Friday follows Ellie Blake (seniors and sisters Shelagh and Nina Laverty) and her mom Katherine (seniors Kate VanTassel and Millie Carlson) as they switch bodies, the work of a magical hourglass that Ellie’s late father left to them before he died. As it glows mysteriously from the stage in a 1990s Nickelodeon-style throwback, they spin around and make the switch, discombobulated and then horrified by their new-old selves.      

The stakes are musical-level high: it’s the day before Katherine’s second wedding, which she has catered and designed by herself in an effort to spotlight her small food business. There’s a wedding reporter and photographer (Juliana Garcia and Angelique Raudales) coming who could make or break her career, and a sweet fiancé named Mike (Jahlil Coleman) who wants to help, but doesn’t know that his soon-to-be-stepdaughter is inhabiting his soon-to-be-wife (don’t think too hard about it)—a Noises Off kind of setup that is rich for physical comedy.

At Ellie’s school, it’s also the day of “The Hunt,” an all-night scavenger hunt that is run, of course, by her crush Adam (Noah Brown)—that her mom will never allow her to participate in. In the audience, we see the parallel: we are either an Ellie or a Katherine, or maybe a little bit of both.   

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Top: Noah Brown as Adam and Zara Baden-Eversman as Fletcher. Bottom: Oops! Mother and daughter switch bodies. Nina Laverty on the left as Ellie and Kate Van Tassel on the right as Katherine. 

In case that somehow sounds manageable, the script has baked in a few extra dramatic tripwires. There’s Ellie’s weird and endearing younger brother Fletcher (Zara Baden-Eversman), her best friends Karli (Mari Caldwell) and Monica (Erin Palmer), and nemesis Savannah (Javieliz Matos), who appears to have fastidiously studied the gospel of Regina George and nails it in a tweed skirt and button down. Like Heathers, it’s a musical that was made at its core for high school students, and in this case for their frazzled and just-trying-to-keep-it-together parents too.

From the moment the lights came up at the rehearsal Monday night, students made the musical their own, turning every remote choir practice, every pre-filmed performance, every missed pandemic WiFi connection into musical fuel. Stepping forward to give the exposition, Nina Laverty became Ellie, a fiery teenager who was perennially angry at her mother, and not always sure of where her limbs were in space. Even as she introduced the show, Laverty harnessed a sort of measured ebullience, her excitement tempered with a small, sharp kind of edge that the last two years have provided.

“So. You’re never going to believe me,” she said, pushing her hands out in front of her and spreading her fingers. They caught and glowed yellow in the light. “No one in their right mind could possibly believe me. But what I’m going to tell you is true.”

Within moments, students were moving across the stage, Laverty and Van Tassel belting through the opening of the show. Caterers marched forward in starched white shirts and masks, seemingly on a culinary mission. Mother and daughter switched bodies, spinning their way into a fully believable gobsmacked-ness. From a live pit below, Jordan Aaron hit the drums as Matt Durland took it away on the keyboard. With buoyant, often synchronized choreography from Jennifer Kaye, students swished, turned, and box-stepped past each other, eyes gleaming as they took stock of where they were.

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Students jump from seated to dancing across the stage in "Oh Biology."

While the musical was written long before Covid-19 turned the globe on its head, Freaky Friday fits the bill and then some. The play is set between a home and a school, with cut-aways to a charming downtown that could be New Haven circa 2005, when it was more Yankee Doodle than Lululemon. In the Blake family’s tight kitchen, audience members may see some version of the place they’ve learned every square inch of during Covid-19, whether taking a snack break from remote classes or learning to make dinner as a way to get off a screen.

Because so much of the musical is also set in a school—and rehearsed in masks—there’s also the sense that this could be Cross circa 2022, with its high-ceilinged gymnasium, bio classes, fraught parent-teacher conferences and thick, hard-to-navigate sea of gossip and adolescent dread. The specter of Covid-19 has hung heavy over the show, including multiple student exposures that resulted in absences last fall. When rehearsals began in October, some students dropped out because they weren’t comfortable singing together in masks. Bazinet said that the winter months, including the December through January Omicron surge, hit the cast particularly hard.

“You're kind of always living in fear a little bit,” Bazinet said. “Not so much like the past month, but before that, we did have kids exposed, and they had to stay home. That happened a couple times. You always worry. That's always in the back of your mind. Like, are we not gonna have a cast member? Or are we gonna find out that the whole cast was exposed?"

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Top: Erin Palmer, Mari Caldwell and Nina Laverty. Bottom: Kayla McCullough as Mrs. Time and Javieliz Matos as Savannah. 

And yet, students’ excitement to be back onstage was palpable Monday. During “Oh Biology,” students nailed Kaye’s choreography as they sailed across the stage with synchronized footwork and lifted arms, sparks flying. “You look just like granny!” Nina Laverty said delightedly to Shelagh after running “Watch Your Back,” in which Shelagh plays a no-excuses gym teacher and students obediently drop into pushups around her. By “Parents Lie,” Van Tassel had fully reminded the audience of the singular, gut-wrenching damage a teenager can do with words—especially if they are trapped in a parent’s body.

Beside her, Baden-Eversman held her own as Fletcher, knees pulled tightly into her chest with a physical, immediate sense of the wound Ellie-as-Katherine had created. Baden-Eversman kept that same momentum going in a duet with Brown, both of them making the most of an ill-placed metaphor with the script’s “Women and Sandwiches.”

In Van Tassel's emotional, sometimes frazzled and short-tempered takes on Katherine, there was a loving nod to how hard the past two years have been on parents, particularly mothers. Within the first weeks of Covid-19 hitting the U.S., 3.5 million mothers left the American workforce, very few of them by choice. In the year-plus since, that number has continued to grow—with some realizing that they can’t yet return because this country hasn’t figured out the infrastructure for them to do so. Claude Saunders jumped from caterer to biology teacher to minister, in an ensemble feat that felt like multiple side hustles.

Suddenly, this portrait of a family stretched by social expectations, running a small business, and struggling to talk about loss didn’t feel so far away at all. We—audience members, witnesses, high schoolers or their adult cheerleaders—micromanage because it helps us cope (a nod to Rose Bromage as Torrey). We wound because we’ve been wounded (looking at you, Karli and Monica). We bounce back because we have to, and because people (Coleman) are forgiving.

And yet within it, magic is entirely possible. Small kindnesses and big compromises, the kind that have made the past two years a little more bearable, are too.

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From left to right: Nina Laverty, Kate Van Tassel, Mari Caldwell, Millie Carlson, and Shelagh Laverty. All of them will graduate this year. 

Students, particularly graduating seniors in the show, are savoring their moments back in person. In an interview between warmups and costumes, five actors sat in a semicircle, reflecting on how strange the past 24 months have seemed.

All of them began their journey at Cross together four years ago, when the idea of closed school buildings and remote learning seemed as strange as a mother and daughter switching bodies for a day. All of them thought, when they walked out of Cross with their backpacks in March 2020, that they’d be back two weeks later. All of them experienced difficulty concentrating and extreme social isolation as they tried to move through high school for months online.

Monday, Carlson and Caldwell were the first to mention the words “mental health,” which they said has remained precarious for students since returning. The Lavertys remembered six months in which they couldn’t visit their grandmother, who lives in a nursing home. As Covid ripped through eldercare facilities in 2020, they felt helpless. Over a year and a half later, they look around and still see their classmates and fellow cast members in masks. In its explosive sense of magic, Freaky Friday is a balm.

All also returned last year, when high schools reopened—and found a school completely changed by the pandemic. And all jumped at the chance to perform one more time on the school’s stage.

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Top: Mother and daughter try to switch back. Will it succeed? Bottom: Shelagh Laverty as Mrs. Meyers, a no-excuses gym teacher. Her sister Nina alternates in the role on the nights she plays Ellie.

Van Tassel said that the show’s double casting has been a boon, rather than a burden—she and Carlson, and Laverty and Laverty, have all learned from each other. She said it has helped her, and several of her peers, move beyond the trauma and confusion of the past two years. The last time she stepped into a tech rehearsal on Cross’ stage, she was playing the loveable Rosemary Pilkington in a 2020 performance that never got to see a live audience. Two years later, she’s taking her final bow as a high school senior.

“Coming back, it kind of feels like you haven’t performed in ages, and yet you just performed yesterday,” she said. “Like, you have that weird mixed feeling—like you have all the memories, but you remember it’s from a while ago.”

Carlson said she’s thrilled “not to be performing on a screen,” a sentiment that all 18 cast members seem to be feeling. For over a year, she and her classmates pivoted from live theater to taped performances in their offices, bedrooms and kitchens, where the only audience was the grainy reflection on a phone or computer screen. Even last year, a pre-taped performance with the club didn’t feel remotely the same.

“The problem was that [loss of] human connection when we were locked down,” Caldwell said. “We couldn’t really bond when we were all in quarantine.”

Nina Laverty jumped in. “Theater, I feel like it’s about not only connecting with the audience, but connecting with your fellow cast members,” she said. “And that’s really hard to do over a screen, so to be able to do it again is a gift.”

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The ensemble shows up fully. Here students are in "Oh Biology."

It is for DeLucia too. When he took the job five years ago, he said, he didn’t know if he could do it justice. Since then, he, Bazinet and students have brought back the theater club, seen it through a pandemic, gotten creative with pre-recorded performances, and brought it back to the stage. Monday he was fully himself, buzzing around the auditorium with a headset and red-and-black Wilbur Cross mask.

He said he considers Bazinet, as well as Kaye and Durlan, extended family. 

“Everybody here is so invested in what we do,” he said. “In these kids. It's a big deal. You know, this is just, it's not just what our students need. I feel like the community needs this. I know the school needs it. Personally, as tired and exhausted as I am, I need it too. This is the payoff. It feels like home."

Freaky Friday runs at Wilbur Cross High School from Friday March 4 through Sunday March 6. Tickets and showtimes are available here