Head Over Heels –the musical is entertaining the crowds at ArtsWest through December 29, 2019. Get tickets and more info here.
One-way of making it to Broadway is by using the formula of a “Juke Box” Musical. This format takes a collective catalogue of an artist’s (or group’s) work, and uses the songs and music to tell a story. In some cases it is of that particular artist (Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons), or it can use the music to hold together an original plot and newly told story (Mamma Mia, the songs of ABBA). In the case of Head Over Heels, it is the latter format with the music of one of the greatest girl groups of the 1980’s, The Go-Go’s.
The story is (loosely) based on the 16th Century pastoral writing of Sir Phillip Sidney’s “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia”. The story tells of the Kingdom of Arcadia, which survives on their possessing “The Beat”. The king goes to the Oracle at Delphi, Pythio (a non-binary entity) and receives four prophecies:
1: Thy younger daughter will bring a liar to bed
2: Thou elder daughter will consummate her love but not with any groom
3: With thy wife, adultery thou shall commit
4: You will meet and make way for a better king
A flag will fall from the skies as each prophecy comes to pass. Should all four prophecies come true, the kingdom shall lose The Beat. The king seeks to avoid Pythio’s prophecies and, without revealing the prophecies tells the kingdom that Pythio only said positive things. He sets the kingdom on a journey from their homeland to avoid losing The Beat. Pamela is the eldest daughter, a ravishing beauty that has yet to meet the suitor she wishes to marry. Her handmaid Mopsa tries to help find her mistress’s match, while also trying to search for her own happiness. Philoclea is the youngest daughter, who is in love with a common shepherd named Musidorus; they cannot marry because he is below her station. In order to win his love, Musidorus disguises himself as an Amazon and approaches the Kingdom’s caravan on its journey to avoid the prophecies. While finally revealing himself to Philoclea, Musidorus unintentionally captures the affections of both the King (who believes the female disguise) and the Queen (who knows he is really a man but does not recognize him). What unfolds involves mistaken identities, crazy mix-ups, and comical mishaps worthy of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”.
The cast of Head Over Heels does good work and look as if they are having fun in the process. The Ensemble is a large one, and they all work together in synchronization to form a sort of “Greek Chorus” that keeps the show running smoothly and on course. The two leading royals are Ann Cornelius (Queen Gynecia) and Broadway veteran, Louis Hobson (King Basilius). Mr. Hobson adds lightheartedness to the character, leading with a strong voice. Ms. Cornelius shines as almost (but not quite) being a caricature of the dominant queen. Her voice is strong and her comic stage presence easily comes through.
The two daughters are played by Alex Sturtevant (Pamela, the elder, beautiful daughter), and Rheanna Atendido (Philoclea, the younger, better-liked daughter). Both ladies seem to be enjoying their work and letting the audience in on all of the jokes. Ms. Sturtevant’s maniacal presence exudes the frantic behaviors of the eldest daughter with comedic timing and presentation. Her voice is good, and her expressions and body language equally demonstrate the talents she possess, especially in the humorous interpretation of “Beautiful”. Ms. Atendido’s more subtle approach works well for the “second daughter”, and she allows the audience to become endeared to her frustrations and plight as she pines for her shepherd lover.
The two, featured actors of the troupe are played by Joseph Tancioco and Eric Dobson, Mr. Tancioco brings slight melancholia to his role as Dametus, viceroy and advisor to the king. He is with the king when the prophecies are revealed and keeps track as each of the flags fall from the sky. Dametus bemoans the act of banishing his former wife, and cherishes his daughter Mopsa. Mr. Dobson (as Musidorus) is charming as the goofy shepherd trying to win the heart of his friend, Princess Philoclea. His awkwardness is perfect while making the transformation from shepherd to Amazon, and further when both the king and queen become enamored.
The two characters that stand out the most (for this reviewer at least) are Mila Jam and Kataka Corn. Mila Jam is a transgender star that has shown her talents in many ways. She is perfect to play the gender-fluid Pythio, using her strong voice (a recording and video star) and stage presence as the prophesizing Oracle. Kataka Corn plays Mopsa, and (unintentionally) steals the focus whenever on stage. Her stage presence is undeniable and her voice is strong, which is probably why she [deservingly] leads the opening number, “We Got the Beat”. There is a subtle charisma brewing underneath her surface that implies there are many more talents yet to be revealed. She is the one to keep an eye on, not only in this performance, but also in any future production lucky enough to cast her in a role.
The show’s message is clear without being overly zealous or preachy; gender is in the mind of the occupant, as well as the eye of the beholder. We should all look beyond binary boundaries, and let the heart lead where it may. Hopefully, while humming wonderful tunes from the show, the audience becomes more like the citizens of Arcadia; a wiser and more accepting society, that dances to a new Beat. Head Over Heels is more than an enjoyable storyline that is propelled by really good music and fun performances. Those in the audience old enough to remember the original version of the songs will leave the theatre tapping their toes and reminiscing in their own minds. The younger audience members will be exposed to a fun show with a catalogue of great music. As usual with ArtsWest at the helm, the audience is guaranteed a quality production with the comfort of knowing there is no such thing as a bad seat.
Head Over Heels was conceived and written by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q and Bring it On – the musical). The musical opened on Broadway July 26, 2018 and ran for over 188 performances. It became a part of LGBT History for the casting of Peppermint, in the role of Pythio, as being the first transgender woman to originate a featured role on Broadway.