Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Head Over Heels
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Becky Nurse of Salem

Ella Ruth Francis
Photo by Lois Tema
Many years ago, while visiting Disneyland, I witnessed an exchange between a father and his child, who—overly tired or denied a set of mouse ears, I really had no idea—was crying piteously, tears streaming down her cheeks, a bubble of snot inflating and deflating from her right nostril. Dad was clearly at the end of his rope. Bending at the waist, his hands stiff at his sides, fists clenched, he put his nose inches from the little girl's and hissed "Goddamit, we're at Disneyland, and you're going to have a good time whether you like it or not!" True story.

At New Conservatory Theatre Center's Head Over Heels, the musical using the songs of 1980s sensation (and one of the best-selling all-female rock bands ever), The Go-Go's, I felt a bit like that little girl, under pressure to have a good time despite all evidence to the contrary. I didn't cry, however. In fact, I even applauded energetically. Because it wasn't the cast's fault I wasn't sufficiently enjoying myself, or even The Go-Go's, whose bouncy new wave pop tunes have aged far better than parachute pants, slap bracelets, the Thighmaster, or most other fads of the era.

No, the primary fault here lies with the book by Jeff Whitty, adapted by James Magruder, which is loosely based on a 16th century romance by Sir Philip Sydney, "The Arcadia."

In Head Over Heels, Basilius (William Giammona) rules Arcadia, a prosperous and peace-loving kingdom, where "the beat" is a divine force that guides and unites the people (but in actuality is probably only an excuse to bookend the show with The Go-Go's biggest hit). Basilius and his queen, Gynecia (Stephanie Temple), have two daughters, Pamela (Ella Ruth Francis) and Philoclea (Kimberly Cohan), neither of whom is destined for a suitable mate: Pamela doesn't like anyone; and Philoclea is in love with her childhood bestie, the low-born shepherd Musidorus (Scott Scholes). But when King Basilius consults the oracle Pythio (Rotimi Agbabiaka), he's given four dire prophecies: his queen will cuckold him; his younger daughter will bring a liar to bed; his older daughter will consummate her marriage but with no groom; and he will meet and make way for a better king.

Naturally, these predictions upset the king, and he lies to his wife and family about them, saying the oracle prophesied only good things—as long as he hunts and kills a golden stag. So, dragging his family and the court with him, Basilius heads off—ostensibly to seek the golden stag, but secretly in an attempt to forestall the oracle's prophecy. Along the way the gang sing and dance to The Go-Go's catalog, and love is discovered in its myriad forms, the prophecies come true (but in unexpected ways), and all ends happily.

Though Whitty's book is rather feeble—thin characters, minimal plot, pseudo-classical (think Shakespeare Lite) dialogue—the cast do their best to imbue his work with some semblance of energy and joy. Though some of the voices are weak and the dancing less than precise, Emma Ruth Francis as Pamela pulls off some terrific line readings that discover comedy that's not immediately present in what's written, and Scott Scholes as Musidorus the shepherd has a lovely middle range voice, but tightens up when he goes for the higher notes. As Pythio, the non-binary oracle, Rotimi Agbabiaka brings a sassy, confident attitude every time he appears on stage.

Still, despite the cast's best efforts (and the three-piece band working hard to re-create that new wave sound, but ultimately falling short), the catchy riffs, and a lovely set by Sarah Phykitt, Head Over Heels was not the good time I was hoping for.

Head Over Heels runs through January 12, 2020, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$60. For tickets and information, visit or call 415-861-8972.