For Heidi Blickenstaff, this Friday is ‘Freaky’ — and pretty wonderful as well
When you personally know someone in a Broadway show, what’s the first thing you do when you sit down in the theater?
Open the Playbill and look for the name.
I’ve had that pleasure several times with Heidi Blickenstaff, the Fresno musical-theater dynamo who at a young age belted out “Tomorrow” for Good Company Players and kept on singing till she reached New York. By my count, I’ve tracked down Heidi’s name in Playbills for “The Full Monty,” “[title of show],” “The Little Mermaid,” “Now. Here. This” (the sequel to “[title]”) and “Something Rotten!” (Note that in four of those shows, she originated her roles.)
Pictured at top: Heidi Blickenstaff and Cozi Zuehlsdorff in “Freaky Friday.” Photo / Disney
But I’ll admit something: I got an even bigger jolt a few weeks go when I saw “Heidi Blickenstaff” pop up in the opening credits for the new Disney TV movie musical “Freaky Friday,” which will be released Friday, Aug. 10, on the Disney Channel. (She gets second billing, just after Cozi Zuehlsdorff, star of “Dolphin Tale,” who plays her daughter.) I’m not sure why seeing Heidi’s name on my advance video screener had such an impact. Is it because of the outsize influence of Hollywood on pop culture? Or knowing that someone I have long admired for her talent is receiving the “validation” of being captured forever on a screen?
Whatever the wacky reason, Heidi felt it, too.
“I was shocked when I saw my name in the credits,” she tells me in a phone interview during a whirlwind publicity tour.
Then again, she was pretty much shocked all the way through the process of filming “Freaky Friday” for Disney. She couldn’t believe she’d gotten the role. She was the only cast member from the stage production to make it into the movie (which was bittersweet, she says).
True, she originated the character of Katherine — the harried caterer mom who somehow swaps souls with her surly teen daughter, Ellie — in the stage musical adaptation of the 1972 novel by Mary Rodgers and the various screen adaptations that followed. She was with the project from the start, appearing in the 2016 debut at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., then followed it to La Jolla, Cleveland and Houston. Peter Marks, writing in the Washington Post, praised her “marvelously sung, resonantly comical central performance.”
If “Freaky Friday” had followed a traditional trajectory, it would have eventually opened on Broadway — and then, if it were a hit there, would likely be followed many years later by a musical film adaptation.
But Disney turned everything upside down. Instead of taking the show to Broadway, the studio decided to turn it directly into a TV movie. (It includes music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, and a book by Bridget Carpenter.)
At that point, Heidi figured there was no chance she’d be involved.
‘When I first found out they were going to make a TV movie, I didn’t feel any pain,” she says. “I just knew as a fact it wouldn’t be me.”
There’s a long tradition on Broadway of actors without big-screen fame getting passed over when Hollywood turns a musical into a movie. They’re replaced by a “name” — even if that name isn’t necessarily a musical-theater pro. (Can you say Uma Thurman in “The Producers”?) Heidi figured that would be the case with “Freaky Friday.”
Then she was asked to audition. Even then, she tried not to get excited.
“On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being absolutely sure I wasn’t going to get the part, I was a 137,” she says.
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She got the part.
Even so, after Heidi was cast by Disney in the leading role, she kept thinking that it couldn’t last. The musical-comedy skills she honed from decades on the stage, which include projecting to the last rows of a theater, are different than what’s required when you’re in front of a camera.
But you’d never know when you watch the finished version. Heidi comes across as an expert physical comedienne in the role, especially when the “soul switching” has taken place and she’s supposed to be a 16-year-old trapped in a 40-year-old’s body. (To watch her stumble in high-heels is a treat, and her teen-angst-facial contortions hit all the right comic notes.) Add to that her genial and distinctive presence on camera — she’s no cookie-cutter Disney mom — and soaring Broadway belt, and it’s a standout performance.
One of her best numbers in the show, “Parents Lie,” sung by Heidi-as-Katherine-as-Ellie to her younger brother, is an emotional high point in the movie. It highlights how Heidi can combine a song’s humor with a poignant undercurrent that gives it surprising texture and depth.
For Good Company’s Dan Pessano, who watched Heidi grow up as a member of the Junior Company at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, it’s no surprise that she packs an emotional punch on screen as well as the stage.
“Her skill has always been connected with vocals,” he says. “So if you want to extend the idea that songs are really monologues with music — that’s where she soars. What she always understood was timing, of not working too hard to get the joke, and letting the audience come to her. She just has a nose for it.”
To this day, Dan can’t entirely reconcile today’s vision of Heidi — vivacious, beautiful, red-carpet-walking entertainment personality — with the 4-foot-3-inch-tall kid with thick glasses of her childhood.
Her performance of “Annie” is still something he speaks of in reverential tones, recalling those glorious, belted-out notes in “Tomorrow.” He adds that her voice sounds terrific on the “Freaky Friday” original cast album as well. (The new Walt Disney movie soundtrack also comes out Aug. 10.)
Dan notes with his customary dry sense of humor — I’m sure Heidi picked up a few pointers — that the “Freaky Friday” Broadway score has a couple of songs that would probably be better left on the cutting-room floor. (I agree. One of them is “Women and Sandwiches.” Sample lyric: “Women and sandwiches, some are cold and some hot. But take what they offer, And you will learn a lot.” Thankfully, that wasn’t a Heidi song, and, even more thankfully, it didn’t make it into the final cut of the film.)
Needless to say, Dan is super proud of her. One of his favorite all-time Heidi songs is one she sings in “[title of show],” which is an autobiographical musical about four friends writing a musical. In “A Way Back to Then,” Heidi sings:
Dancing in the backyard
Kool-aid moustache and butterfly wings
Hearing Andrea McArdle sing
From the hi-fi in the den
I’ve been waiting my whole life
To find a way back to then
“It makes me cry every time,” he says.
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There’s another important thing to know about Heidi, Dan tells me: She knew what she wanted early on, and was willing to work tirelessly to get it. “She’s a buzzsaw,” he says.
“I had my sights set on Broadway as soon as I knew there was a Broadway, and I think I was 5,” she tells me.
Along with her time at Good Company Players, she got great training at Roosevelt School of the Arts, all of which added to her “artist toolkit,” as she calls it. She even took dance every day, something that came in handy when she found herself speeding around the stage on Heelies in “The Little Mermaid.” (“Never again,” I remember her telling me afterward.)
The funny thing is that Heidi in high school was as far from the teenage character she plays in “Freaky Friday” as you can get.
“I will say that my real 16-year old self could have not been more different than Ellie,” she says. “Ellie is not particularly focused, ambitious or confident. She’s more flying by the seat of her pants.”
Heidi’s chemistry with Cozi Zuehlsdorff is sweet and tangible. There’s another wonderful moment in “Freaky Friday” when Adam (played by Vancouver hearththrob singer Ricky He) bumps into Ellie (who by now has swapped bodies with her mom) and Katherine in the school hallway. Heidi responds just like a teenage girl with a crush. The look that bolts across her face is pure 16 years old. It could be a Roosevelt High moment. She might have been driven, but everyone’s got hormones.
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Now that Heidi is a Disney personality, she gets to do Disney-personality things. Among them: The studio held a big-screen movie premiere for “Freaky Friday” on July 30 in New York. The stars of the film walked the red carpet. (I talked to Heidi a few days before the event, and she was excited and a little scared: “I just bought my cute sparkling dress, and I’m going to try not to barf seeing my face on that big screen.”)
She also got the VIP treatment at Disneyland, which seems appropriate. Her appearance included a parade through the park as the soundtrack for “Freaky Friday” played.
“That parade was cuckoo bananas for sure,” she says. “Getting to go backstage at Disneyland was amazing. To board a classic car with Donald Duck was certainly another bucket list moment for me.”
In the middle of all that, she felt for a moment as if she’d gone back in time.
“There are people waving — I’m sure primarily to Donald Duck — but also at me! I had a vision of me as a child, waving to the characters. It was like looking back on myself.”
As for the future, who knows? Dan Pessano, for one, is thinking this could be the start of even bigger and better things for Heidi. She was never a cookie-cutter ingenue type, most of whom burn out in their 30s, alas. Perhaps now that she’s firmly ensconced in her 40s, she’s reached the age when it’s her time for more film roles — while never forgetting her musical theater roots, we can only hope.
And if the stage version of “Freaky Friday” ever does make it to New York, she’d have to be natch for the starring role, of course. Just like Hollywood, Broadway loves its movie stars.