Out actors star in Pride Month production of Freaky Friday at the Alley Theatre.
By Donalevan Maines
Disney’s new stage musical Freaky Friday is about a mother and daughter who switch bodies for a day. But openly gay actors Eean Cochran and Tony Neidenbach recently added their own switcheroo to the production, which comes to the Alley Theatre in Houston from Friday, June 2 through July 2.
The musical puts a Broadway spin on the 1972 novel by Mary Rodgers that became a 1976 movie starring Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris. After a 1995 television remake, Lindsay Lohan reprised Foster’s role, opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, in the Disney feature film Freaky Friday in 2003.
“The Lindsay Lohan version was big in theaters when I was in high school,” says Neidenbach, who sings, dances, and understudies several roles as part of an ensemble of high-school teens.
The switcheroo occurred when Cochran, who plays high-school heartthrob Palmer, was felled by food poisoning during the show’s run in Cleveland last month. Cochran, who’s black, made it through Act I, but was replaced by Neidenbach, who’s white, in Act II. “He is [white]! He is!” Cochran said, laughing, when I spoke with him the following day.
Palmer’s character has a brother in the show, played by “out and proud” actor Julian Ramos. Cochran and Ramos could pass for brothers—but Neidenbach and Ramos? Not so much.
“That is what is really cool about the casting of the show,” Cochran says. “We also have a white girl who has a Japanese father in one of the scenes. It’s a nice freedom.”
Neidenbach experienced a celebration of the theater’s freedom and abiding love last June, when he performed at the 70th annual Tony Awards just hours after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida. Sporting a nicely trimmed beard in the opening number, Neidenbach was the handsome father of a chubby young James Corden, attending his first Broadway show. Corden, the host, followed with selections from iconic musical-theater stage roles he’s dreamt of playing.
Neidenbach made his stage debut in a community-theater production of The Sound of Music in his hometown of Gainesville, Georgia. “I’m a Southern boy,” he says. “Every summer, it was our family activity to perform together in a musical at the community theater.”
That family tradition began when Neidenbach and his older siblings, John and Libby, were cast in The Sound of Music, but the director couldn’t settle on who should play Captain von Trapp. “My sister begged my dad until he agreed to audition, and he ended up getting the part,” Neidenbach says. “My mother played a nun, and we siblings played Liesl, Friedrich, and Kurt. It was a big milestone in my childhood. Our whole family participated, and my dad was such a good Captain von Trapp.”
In high school, Neidenbach starred as Will Parker in Oklahoma! and Cornelius Hakl in Hello, Dolly!, then strutted his stuff as a dance captain in “almost every main-stage musical” at Penn State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in musical theater in 2008.
Neidenbach says he came out a week after he turned 18. “My sister was home from college, so I told my best friend and my sister. She said if I wanted to tell our parents, she would do it with me. We decided to tell my mom first,” he recalls. “We sat down with my mom, and my sister led into the discussion by telling her, ‘You and Dad have done a great job of raising us each to be unique and special.’ Then it was like, ‘Take it away, Tony.’
“I told her, and my mom was so great, she sat me on her lap and hugged me and told me she loves me. But she said, ‘You’re going to have to tell your dad, because I’m not going to keep a secret from him.’ I waited a week before I told him. That was 12 years ago. I went away to college, and over time he got more comfortable with it. I think his main concern was that he didn’t want me to be bullied, and that I would have a tougher road. But things have changed since then—things have changed a lot.”
As a member of the ensemble of Freaky Friday, Neidenbach plays Rex, the “most flamboyant” character, and one of the two minions to teen “mean girl” Regina George. “I wear bright clothes, like a purple polo and some cute little capri pants,” he says.
When Cochran came out while he was a senior at Abilene Christian University, he faced parents who were both pastors. He had previously attended Grapevine Faith Christian School in the Dallas area. “It wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be,” Cochran says. “I was on tour, so I wasn’t on campus at ACU, and my parents and family provided huge support for me. They don’t judge me, and I don’t judge myself. I still consider myself a Christian.” (His favorite Bible verse is Psalm 149:3, which states, “Let them praise [God] with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp.”)
Cochran played football before breaking his arm and turning to theater. At Faith Christian, he portrayed basketball cocaptain Chad Danforth in High School Musical and Judah in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Prior to Freaky Friday, he’s been part of international tours of Dreamgirls and Bring It On, a national tour of Mamma Mia!, and regional productions of A Bronx Tale, The Wiz, Hairspray, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Tarzan.
Ramos hails from Indianapolis, and has performed in Freaky Friday since its bow last fall at Signature Theatre in Washington DC.
Both Cochran and Neidenbach will celebrate their birthdays while in Houston, and hope the Freaky Friday cast will be a part of the Houston Pride parade.
“I look forward to meeting you at ActOut on June 15,” says Neidenbach, referring to the Alley’s LGBTQ theater night for Freaky Friday.
Trust me, I will be there!