Review: The Hilary Duff Project Nails the Nostalgic Sendup with Talent to Spare

Shaina Schrooten, Em Modaff. Photo by Sarah Potter.

Nostalgia is a hot commodity lately, likely due to the rather dismal present and threat of an even more dire future. Taking a look back at simpler times can be a balm. In the case of The Hilary Duff Project, it can also be a really rowdy, silly and somehow sorta touching time, too. The Hilary Duff Project just finished a brief run at the Newport Theater and we had a grand time reliving the golden days of the Disney Channel, which for a while seemed like it couldn’t miss with smart, funny, absurd sitcoms and feature-length movies, had many a teen and preteen line up for miles just to get a glimpse of the girlie glitterati.

One of the best of the bunch though was Hilary Duff as Lizzie Mcguire. Lizzie McGuire combined a coming-of-age story with cute animation and just the right amount of sweet and silly for a hit that many of us remembered for years. By some miracle Duff came out of it relatively unscathed, taking her rightful place as a pop star (where else do they come from any more?) for a few years and then living a quieter life where she’s still adored by plenty of fans, including the obviously infatuated creators of “the HDP,” Cat McGee and Alex Benjamin. (They developed the show while students at Northwestern University and first staged it here in 2017.)

Left to right :Jermaine Robinson Jr., Shaina Schrooten, Becca Hurd, Cat McGee, Kelsey Erhart (front), Anne Martin, Mateo Hernandez, Alison Smith. Photo by Sarah Potter.

It’s easy to think if you’re a big enough fan of something you can do it justice, but that’s far from the truth, and there’s more misses than there are hits in that category. This defies those odds to bring something truly fun, well thought out and, as it happens, pretty universally appealing to the table. The Hilary Duff Project manages a slick sense of humor with fantastic writing and some really talented actors with great comedic timing and, as it happens, musical chops, too. 

It’s a sort of fever dream of a show that features a cast of Hilarys (?) plus a Phantom-of-the-Opera-style conscience that adds a bit of odd creepiness to the proceedings. It chronicles the life and times of Hilary Duff, from her early ambition to her llama-gifting new husband (a much more recent development) and the turmoil of her relationship with another teenage heartthrob, Aaron Carter. That said, you don’t need to be a Disney Channel lifer to get on board. The Hilary Duff Project is as much a love letter to the early 2000s as to the teen actress and much of the sendup is universally understandable through the lens of teen ambition, angst and desire. 

Laura Nelson, Cat McGee, Kelsey Erhart. Photo by Sarah Potter.

One of my favorite parts of the show, in fact, transcends all generation gaps and is simply the wacky comments on various Duff leavings, from some of her Metamorphosis-era music videos to Lizzie clips and gossip rag fodder. There’s the jealous, the rival Disney star fans, the inane, and the horribly misspelled, and a fantastically funny cast member to read them all. 

HDP takes cues from lots of pop culture properties and apes the style of several well-known musicals to great effect. Dance numbers are impressively choreographed, clips expertly chosen to find the most ridiculous or cringey Lizzie moments that still reflect a fan’s love for the thing they’re lampooning, and there’s LOTS of chances to sing along. The cast and crew’s even been so kind as to post a Hilary Duff Project drinking game if you want to get really rowdy, and at the end? Well, though the run’s over, we’ll just say it’s just a little bit of a Blue Man ending. 

The cast of the Hilary Duff Project. Photo by Sarah Potter.

On the evening I caught the show, I didn’t think I was in the mood for anything approaching Disney, and worried I’d be too harshly judging this nerdy niche show, despite my obvious love for the absurd and nostalgic, but even coming in in a bad headspace did nothing to dampen my feelings for the show. The Hilary Duff Project is equally worshipful and roasty, perfectly paced and full of on-target and well-timed humor. From the dance numbers to the show and movie clips, it’s adeptly curated and expertly performed, and as specic it is to one Disney star during one era of Disney stardom, manages universal appeal, because the writing, cast and crew are so damn talented and funny. All this to say, this was a great show we’d recommend even if you’ve never once wished upon a star. After all, it makes no difference who you are. Funny and talented is funny and talented.

Marielle Bokor
Marielle Bokor