Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Head Over Heels
Also see Gil's recent review of Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age
Based on Philip Sydney's "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia", Head Over Heels tells the story of a kingdom in turmoil. After hearing of a prophecy from an oracle that threatens to take away their "beat," the power that ensures their prosperity, the King of Arcadia and his people journey off in an attempt to prevent the prophecies from coming true. Along the way, the King, his wife, and his two daughters discover things about themselves they didn't realize.
On the surface, Head Over Heels is a musical chock-full of silly fun, mistaken identities and disguises, romantic entanglements, and sexual hijinks. However, the original book by Jeff Whitty, which has been adapted by James Magruder, also incorporates a fun nod to classic Shakespearean cross-dressing comedies, a shout out to female independence and empowerment, and also teenage rebellion that seemed to be the foundation of many of the Go-Go's songs. That's why what on first glance may have seemed to be an odd pairing actually turns out to be a wise and winning choice. And even though the plot may be a little convoluted, it still makes for a delightful tale.
The score includes the hit Go-Go's songs "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "Vacation," along with two songs the group's singer Belinda Carlisle made famous on her own, "Mad About You" and "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." For the most part, these songs and the 10 other in the show work to depict the various stages of romance with lyrics that fit surprisingly well to express the feelings, hopes and desires of the characters. The arrangements are fun and they sound great under Lindsay Noel Miller's sharp music direction of the exceptional five-piece band.
Director Toby Yatso does a wonderful job in staging the show to keep the pace brisk while also ensuring his gifted cast create realistic characters that, while often camping it up, never cross the line into caricature. Yatso also makes certain that the adult subject matter and attention to gender-fluid characters and various sexual preferences are treated with respect. Choreographer Youngjoo Jang delivers a nonstop assortment of varied dance styles that perfectly tie into both the period setting of the piece and its modern sensibility. The sets, costumes and lighting by Douglas Clarke, Maci Hosler, and Wade York, respectively, are all colorful and creative.
While it's mainly an ensemble show, at the center are a quartet of actresses who project an abundance of feminine strength. Aydan Bruce is a knock-out as the feisty and vain eldest daughter of the King and Queen, Pamela, with a voice that soars to the rafters. As the other royal daughter Philoclea, Jena Allen is warm and fetching with a lilting voice that shines on her songs. Christian Johannsen proves to be quite commanding as Queen Gynecia, and once she realizes she doesn't have to be restless and unfulfilled, Johannsen astutely shows just how powerful the Queen can be. As Pamela's handmaiden Mopsa, Evening Calabrese is touching and appropriately sure of herself.
Leo Gallegos is endearing and charming as the shepherd Musidorus, who is in love with Philoclea but dresses as a woman to be close to her and finds he actually enjoys it, even if he ends up being the object of everyone's affection. Connor Dunning is appropriately self-serving as King Basilius, who thinks he always knows the correct thing to do. Christian Fronckowiak is funny as the King's assistant Dametas, who has to deal with the impending doom of the prophecies, and Desmond Woodward is commanding, fierce and fun as Pythio, the gender-fluid oracle. The members of the large ensemble are wonderful and are used quite effectively throughout.
Head Over Heels is a musical with a refreshing open-mindedness about gender and sexuality. In addition to it being a show with a modern sensibility and having important lessons about tolerance, the need to be yourself, and accepting others for who they truly are, no matter their gender, sexual identity, or sexual preference, it's also a whole lot of fun.
Head Over Heels runs through November 20, 2022, at Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera, with performances at the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the ASU School of Music, 50 E. Gammage Pkwy in Tempe AZ. Tickets and information are available at ASU.edu.
Songs by The Go-Go's