Theater Review: HEAD OVER HEELS (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on November 19, 2021

in Theater-Los Angeles


You may have never heard of the musical Head Over Heels, but this screwy mash-up of Sir Philip Sidney’s sixteenth-century poem Arcadia and the songs of the iconic 1980s’ female rock band The Go-Go’s has been around the block since 2015. From Oregon Shakes to SF’s Curran Theatre to Broadway, major productions have tried valiantly to make this earnest work work (libretto by James Magruder, adapting from an original book conceived by Avenue Q‘s Jeff Whitty). Aside from being set in an Elizabethan-era Greece, the show is a PSA for prideful pansexuality!

Shanice Williams
(L-R) Alaska 5000 and Lea DeLaria

The scattershot, moonstruck plot has characters going into the woods 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 of Arcadia must be shaken up. The dotty solution is a journey of renewal a la Candide.

(L-R) Tiffany Mann and Emily Skeggs
Emily Skeggs

How should one attack this wacky and excessively outrageous material? One would hope with earnest seriousness for the story and eye-popping choreography to match the pop yumminess of “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Broadway did it with an overblown spectacle that made Variety write, “It’s really hard to laugh when somebody’s holding a gun to your head.”

FreddieAlaska 5000

If there is a way, it wasn’t found at Pasadena Playhouse, which bursts out of the pandemic with a rock-party 80s dizzying disco in a house completely overhauled in a Here Lies Love fashion: the in-the-round action has seating on stage and in the balcony, and there’s a a central mosh pit where spectators stand and move about next to the whooshing-by actors and top-notch all-girl band. With strips and confetti of gold festooned among us, what I really needed was a cocktail and cocaine. Oh, I danced with the beat, but got seasick twirling around among other crowded-in standing viewers to see who was speaking, and just felt sorry for the sweaty actors who had to navigate the theater’s catwalks and platforms to the point where subtext wasn’t even an afterthought.

Lea DeLaria(L-R) Lea DeLaria, Shanice Williams and Tiffany Mann

What went wrong? Conceivers/directors/choreographers Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton have cut the material from 140 minutes to 80 minutes, removed any chance for dance numbers, and offered no humor for some the most astounding performers around: cock-of-the-walk Lea Delaria having fun scatting but mumbling dialogue; the watchable George Salazar; a powerhouse Tiffany Mann; Shanice Williams from TV’s The Wiz; the fabulous and seemingly non-perspiring Alaska 5000 from RuPaul’s Drag Race; and a completely wasted Emily Skeggs, Tony-nominated for her role in Fun Home. With a disregard for directorial focus and commedia dell’arte stylings, all this production ended up doing was exposing the manic silliness underneath it all.

George Salazar

photos by Jeff Lorch

Yurel Echezarreta

Head Over Heels
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
ends on December 12, 2021
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse

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