Theater Review: HEAD OVER HEELS (Berkeley Playhouse)

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by Chuck Louden on June 10, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Since 2007 the Berkeley Playhouse is one of the few theaters in the Bay Area that offers classes and camps for youths. Consequently their shows feature large ensemble casts of young actors who sing and dance with passion. Past shows include Matilda The Musical, Cinderella Enchanted and most recently Rent which definitely had more of an adult theme.

DC Scarpelli (Basilius), Milo Boland (Musidorus), and Jessica Coker (Gynecia)
B Noel Thomas (Pythio) and ensemble members

So it seemed to be an odd choice to select Head Over Heels for their current production. It’s advertised as “Pop Rock meets poetic prose in a romantic comedy.” Basically, it’s a modern fable of inclusivity with an embrace of non-binary characters, same sex couples, and a recognition of the loves who may exist right in front of our faces. Unfortunately what plays out on stage is a convoluted mess. Head Over Heels is a jukebox musical, one which strings together songs from pop culture around a new libretto. The idea is that a show with pop hits will draw in an audience nostalgic for songs from their youth. Sometimes these jukebox musicals are tracing a history of a pop group, such as Ain’t Too Proud (The Temptations), Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons) or Beautiful (Carole King). Other times, nonsensical plots are contrived just to put together a crowd-pleasing musical — Mamma Mia is the one the critics love to hate.

Dany Benitez (Ensemble), Miles Meckling (Ensemble), Jas Cook (Pamela),
Scout Del Real (Ensemble), and Nico Jaochico (Ensemble)
DC Scarpelli (Basilius)

Head Over Heels is one of the latter. 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. The basic “story” is that of a 16th-century Royal Family with two daughters who the King and Queen are trying to marry off to suitable husbands. There are all sorts of secret identities, gender roles reversed, plotting against family members etc. Aside from being set in an Elizabethan-era Greece, the show is nothing more than a PSA for prideful pansexuality. 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).

Milo Boland (Musidorus) and Jacqueline Dennis (Philoclea)

At Berkeley Playhouse, where productions are usually just a hair short of professional level but still a generous cut above community theater, it still doesn’t work. All of the actors are either under 25 years old or over 50 years old (give or take). This means that characters in their 20s and 30s are played by kids who are hardly age-appropriate for the roles. It’s sweet that kids of all ages, shapes and sizes are clearly having fun on stage, but the actors speak with a combination of English verse and iambic pentameter which under the best of circumstances makes the dialogue hard to decipher — the vocal delivery here doesn’t help to follow a fairly complicated plot. Plus, Y Sharon Peng‘s costumes appear to have been dragged out of an old theater camp barn. Most of the outfits are ill-fitting and old and the wigs on the adults look ridiculous.

The company of Head Over Heels
The company of Head Over Heels

The Go-Go’s We Got the Beat album from which most of the songs were taken came out in 1981. It was considered light, frothy and fun. The Go-Go’s were one of the first all-female bands. The songs were catchy and played on Top 40 radio stations. The kids in this show bop around on stage but their singing can’t hold a candle to the infectious spirit of the original songs (how would they know since they were born 30 years later?). Some can sing, some not so much. It feels almost petty then to talk about a lack of chemistry between the supposed romantic leads. Unfortunately the whole show has the feel of an end-of-summer camp production that the kids put on with some of the grown-ups thrown in to help them ham it up.

Milo Boland (Musidorus) and DC Scarpelli (Basilius)
Clockwise from bottom left: Scout Del Real (Ensemble), Megan McGrath (Ensemble),
Miles Meckling (Ensemble), Milo Boland (Musidorus), Dany Benitez (Ensemble),
Julien Gussman (Ensemble), and Nico Jaochico (Ensemble)

It’s just not the right show for this group (in fact the jury is still out if this show is right for anyone). Directed by Mel Martinez, this one is strictly for family and friends of the performers. I will give one honorable mention to the delightful Jas Cook as one of the daughters, Pamela. I last saw her as “Grace,” one of the mean and jealous stepsisters in Cinderella Enchanted. Her comic timing and facial expressions steal every scene she’s in, even when her character is in the background. Her unhinged performance is hysterical.

Jas Cook (Pamela) and Melinda Campero (Mopsa)

Having traveled far but in a full-circle, ending up back in Arcadia — the same location where they physically began their journey to save the kingdom — the characters are not nearly the same people that began the journey. I’m not the same person for having accompanied them on this silly, misguided musical adventure.

The Company

photos by Ben Krantz Studio

Head over Heels
Berkeley Playhouse
Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave. in Berkeley
ends on June 30, 2024
for tickets, call 510.845.8542, ext. 351 or visit Berkeley Playhouse

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