Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Delectably Off-"Beat": 'Head Over Heels' Takes Go-Go's Music in Ambitiously Intriguing Directions -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Head Over Heels
a musical featuring Go-Go's songs
Kokandy Productions
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru August 25

When I first saw a synopsis of Head Over Heels--in Chris Jones' Chicago Tribune review of the Broadway opening--it sounded like an unnecessarily obtuse affair.

In being a "jukebox musical" with songs by The Go-Go's, the show doesn't provide a biography of the band or directly celebrate modern womanhood in light of the all-female group having several big hits in the 1980s.

Rather, it uses the songs--"We Got the Beat," "Our Lips are Sealed," "Vacation," "Head Over Heels" and many more--in a contemporary adaptation of a piece of 16th century literature, The Arcadia, by Sir Phillip Sidney.

There's nothing wrong with creative ambition, and the show's book writer, Jeff Whitty, handled the same duties for the masterful Avenue Q, but from Jones' review and some other lukewarm notices, it seemed like a case of overreach.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Having now seen the show, which opened on Broadway less than a year ago but whose closure in
January--with no subsequent national tour--allowed it to go-go onto local productions rather swiftly, I can say Head Over Heels works considerably better than I might've imagined.

It's a lot of fun and quite worthwhile, even if it still doesn't strike me as a concept I'd invest my money in.

In other words, I really liked it, but I can understand why it wasn't a box office smash on Broadway.

Having never before heard of The Arcadia, I can’t speak to how closely James Magruder's adaptation hews to Sidney’s original prose poem, but my comprehension was aided by reading the Head Over Heels plot synopsis on Wikipedia beforehand.

In the kingdom of Arcadia, where—naturally—everyone's got “the Beat,” Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza), the daughter of the haughty king Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett) is in love with Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop), an old pal deemed beneath her station, while her supposedly gorgeous sister Pamela (Bridget Adams-King) pines for love. 

The kindly Queen Gynecia (Liz Norton), a gender-fluid oracle named Pythio (Parker Guidry) and Mopsa (Deanalis Resto), a woman beguiled by Pamela, also factor in. 

Stretching the songbook to include some Belinda Carlisle solo hits, Musidorus belts out “Mad About You” for Philoclea, while some clandestine romances demand “Our Lips are Sealed” prior to proclamations of falling “Head Over Heels.” 

In a variety of ways, the somewhat campy musical celebrates LGBTQ+ romance, and it’s easy to see why—despite the Broadway failure—it’s garnered a cult following. 

In the lobby pre-show, I spoke with a patron who’d come from Georgia after seeing Head Over Heels six times on Broadway, a tally considered so paltry by other devotees as to get him ridiculed. 

As Jones intimated in his review of the Broadway show, the Go-Go’s—still the only all-female band to have a #1 album—might well have merited having their own story told in a musical featuring their songs, but for those willing to go with the originality, Head Over Heels is a blast.

And as someone who really only knew the Go-Go’s (and Carlisle’s) big hits, I relished the show—and the Broadway Cast Recording—introducing me to such catchy tunes as “Beautiful,” “Get Up and Go,” “Good Girl,” “How Much More” and “Lust to Love.” 

Carrying out its conceit to have the characters speak in an Elizabethan tongue, Head Over Heels is quite shrewd, but it also becomes a tad much and I couldn’t help wonder how much more pleasing it truly was than a tribute concert featuring the same songs—including Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”—might be. 

Because for all of Whitty’s wittiness, nicely showcased at Theatre Wit under the direction of Derek Van Barham & Elizabeth Swanson, much of the buoyancy of Head Over Heels is to be found in the songs themselves. 

Certainly, it’s clever how they get woven into the epic romance, updated to celebrate inclusiveness--which the casting nicely furthers, with multiple roles filled by talented people who might may not seem like obvious choices--but at the end of the night, the show tops out at terrifically fun, rather than truly phenomenal. 

But especially given where my perception of this musical began, by all means consider this a recommendation for you to Go-Go.

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