Review: The troubled Go-Go’s musical “Head Over Heels” finds festive redemption
Talk about an exuberant reopening. Pasadena Playhouse has welcomed theatergoers back not to a play but to a party.
The inside of the theater has been transformed into an ’80s-style dance club. Audience members can reserve seating in the upper or lower galleries, but those with general admission tickets are free to show off their moves alongside the performers on a dance floor that serves as the main playing area.
The occasion for all this free-flowing festivity is a radically transformed production of the Broadway musical “Head Over Heels.” The show, which pairs the music of the Go-Go’s with a tale adapted from a 16th century pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, has traveled a long and bumpy road.
Conceived by Jeff Whitty, who wrote the original book, the musical was retooled with an updated libretto by James Magruder before arriving in New York in 2018, where it closed long before awards season. The show made history nevertheless with the casting of Peppermint, the first openly transgender woman to originate a principal role on Broadway.
“Head Over Heels” had its ardent supporters, though I was not among them. I appreciated the show’s refreshing open-mindedness about gender and sexuality. But the counterintuitive mix of story and score felt gimmicky to me, and the convoluted story of a group of mixed-up lovers overcoming a litany of wacky obstacles became a chore to watch.
I’m happy to report that the slog is completely removed in this swirling new production directed, choreographed and conceived by Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton. Condensed to an intermission-free 90 minutes, the musical gallops cheekily over the boring bits.
A good deal of dramatic sense is sacrificed along the way. The plot, even for someone who has seen the longer Broadway version, is blurry. But the fun is hard to resist, and by the end the tale not only sorts itself out but becomes genuinely moving.
Danny Feldman, Pasadena Playhouse’s producing artistic director, greeted the audience at Sunday’s opening with stirring words. He called theater-makers “second responders,” charged with the task of bringing our community back together. A good way to do that, he said, is by sparking “communal joy.”
That is clearly the mission of this production of “Head Over Heels,” which works relentlessly to spread delight. All credit to the design team for creating the perfect ambience. (A special shoutout to the rave-like lighting of Stacey Derosier and the audacious hair and wig design of Christopher Enlow.) I would say you’ve probably never seen anything like this, but there are precedents.
In the way the theater has been physically transformed, the production calls to mind the Hypocrites’ zany shindig version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” which came to Pasadena Playhouse in 2018. But the clubby energy may be closer to “The Donkey Show: A Midsummer Night’s Disco,” Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner’s 1999 off-Broadway Shakespearean dance party that helped propel the immersive musical trend.
All that’s missing from this incarnation of “Head Over Heels” is an open bar. Not that the performers need any help in being disinhibited. The actors josh with each other and the audience in the madcap communal spirit of commedia dell’arte troupers.
The musical, derived from Sidney’s “Arcadia,” was always designed for theatrical friskiness. There’s something inescapably rompish about splicing together the music of the Go-Go’s with English Renaissance source material. The LGBTQ-friendly update, which opens new possibilities for romantic unions, winks puckishly to establish a giddy esprit de corps with the audience.
Let’s do ourselves a favor and not recap the dizzying plot. The relationships eventually settle into a discernible pattern, so don’t worry if there are moments when you feel completely lost.
Basilius, the tyrannical king, is played by a scruffy, cigar-chomping Lea DeLaria, who tramps around the stage with the bent strut of Groucho Marx. A moralizing lech, Basilius is married to Gynecia, the imperious queen brought to life with divine Joan Crawford archness by Alaska 5000, a drag performer and recording artist who was the winner of the second season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.”
The royal couple has two daughters. Philoclea (a dynamic Shanice Williams, who starred as Dorothy in NBC’s “The Wiz Live”) is in love with a humble shepherd named Musidorus (George Salazar, a winning Seymour in the Pasadena Playhouse revival of “Little Shop of Horrors”). Her parents object to this match, but she can’t get married anyway until Pamela (powerhouse singer Tiffany Mann), her vain older sister, takes a husband first.
Poor Philoclea. Between Pamela’s exaggerated sense of her own beauty and her curious preoccupation with her handmaiden Mopsa (Emily Skeggs), it seems doubtful that this firstborn sister will ever consent to marrying one of the male suitors her parents have deemed appropriate for her.
Pythio, the fearsome neighborhood Oracle played by Freddie, a musician and drag performer, delivers some cryptic prophecies (scrolled on a roll of paper towels) that will send the characters into the woods for an adventurous and rather dangerous frolic. When Musidorus cross-dresses as an Amazon warrior to keep a close eye on Philoclea, all erotic hell breaks loose.
I overhead someone seated in my vicinity say that she didn’t have any idea what was going on. No matter. DeLaria jokingly reassured theatergoers in the early going that the show is only 90 minutes long. When I found myself befuddled, I just turned my attention to Yurel Echezarreta, who seems to be everywhere at once in the fluid role of the Player, darting from the dance floor to the catwalks to right over the shoulders of unsuspecting spectators.
Thankfully, there is no exam at the end of the show. The point is to fall in line with the beat, which is easy to do in a musical whose first number and finale is “We Got the Beat.”
The songs don’t illuminate or advance the story much. Yes, “Mad About You” (from Belinda Carlisle‘s debut solo album “Belinda”) has clear amorous application, and “Vacation” can brighten any journey. And of course “Our Lips Are Sealed” works for a show in which everyone seems to be harboring a juicy secret. But for the most part the lyrics have only a tangential relationship to the action.
Rocking out is the order of the day. A good portion of the Go-Go’s catalog I either wasn’t familiar with or forgot. But it was impossible not to sing along with the hits, even in unfamiliar arrangements (played by an onstage band led by music director Laura Hall).
Mann brings the house down with a titanic version of “How Much More.” Skeggs, who received a Tony nomination for her performance in the musical “Fun Home,” sounds uncannily like Carlisle, a pleasant treat for a show that carefully avoids a cover-band approach. Freddie’s vocal stylings, slightly reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright, are for me the most captivatingly original.
The ecstatic Dionysian vibe of the music hastens the characters’ metamorphoses of hearts, minds and even bodies. This is a musical that celebrates the rebirth of a better and happier self, a welcome message as we emerge from this long pandemic. In jovially extending an inclusive embrace, “Head Over Heels” seeks and finds a new communal beat.
'Head Over Heels'
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 12.
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org
Tickets: Start at $30
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. No intermission
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