Theater Review: HEAD OVER HEELS (Kokandy Productions in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 7, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


It’s a marriage made in musical heaven: A ton of fun erupts from combining seemingly antithetical elements — a 16th-century fairy-tale/poem cycle by Sir Phillip Sidney and jukebox hits from the 1980s’ female rock band The Go-Go’s. As created by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder, the riotous result is Head over Heels, a gender-breaking confection that brings out the best from two very different worlds. Its subject: a crack-brained kingdom that, faced with prophecies that threaten its extinction, treks forth in search of salvation, namely uncovering its multi-faceted sexual orientations.

Fresh from its Broadway run and now in a rampaging staging by Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson for Kokandy Productions, this 140-minute theatrical treat repurposes chartbusters like “We Got the Beat” and the title song, their destiny a daffy reworking of an Elizabethan fantasy allegory. Happily, the energy in this Chicago premiere never drops long enough to expose its manic silliness, while the serious stuff streams from songs suddenly enhanced by a new context.

The whimsical setting is the kingdom of Arcadia. The scattershot, moonstruck plot details its attempts to defy or confirm a Delphic prophecy. Faced with the fear of losing the “Beat” because of their staid monarch’s stagnant rule (along with dire forecasts of royal adultery and incest), this little land must be shaken up. The dotty solution is a journey of renewal — to Lesbos and Bohemia, among other colorful destinations.

Patriarchally challenged, King Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett) is rightly fearful of a rival predicted by the oracle. This retrograde ruler and his magnificent wife Gynecia (Liz Norton) have two very different daughters: Proud Pamela (Bridget Adams-King) is jealous of her younger sister Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza), in love with an unsuitable shepherd Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop). (This merry trickster will cleverly assume an all-purpose “Amazon” persona that entices all sexes to fall for “her.”) Meanwhile Pamela’s handmaiden Mopsa (Deanalis Resto) has her heart set on her fickle mistress.

Fueled by mistaken identities and artful disguises that just fall short of metamorphoses and pulsating with songs like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” ”Vacation,” “Mad About You,” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” the antic/antique action sorts out the myriad sexual complications among the variegated characters played by Kokandy’s very game 18-person cast.

By play’s end, as the story happily comes full circle, assorted breakneck revelations brimming with self-discoveries confirm the awesome fluidity of gender and the malleability of sex. A final change of crowns may well restore a new “Beat,” a more tolerant rhythm to which everyone can dance.

And dance they do, making Breon Arzell’s eye-popping, heart-stopping choreography a major lure of this Belmont Avenue sensation. Equal kudos go to Kyra Leigh’s pile-driving musical direction, Chris Rhoton’s keyhole set, and Uriel Gomez’s unrepentantly florid costumes.

Above all, a brilliantly cast company gives our quirky and convoluted Arcadians their full dramatic due. For all its mannered make-believeHead Over Heels is a non-binary feast of alternative delights. More than most musicals, there really is something for everyone on Theater Wit’s well-bursting stage.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Head over Heels
Kokandy Productions
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
Sat at 3 (July 27, Aug 10 & 24); Wed at 8 (July 31, Aug 14 & 21)
ends on August 25, 2019 EXTENDED to September 8, 2019
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Kokandy

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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