Review: “Head Over Heels” (Kokandy Productions)

It’s a rare thing to find a musical that wrangles fun, simplicity and emotional depth from as much source material as Kokandy Productions’ “Head Over Heels” does. Authors Jeff Whitty and James Magruder’s book, paired with crowd-pleasing songs from The Go-Go’s manages to be sweet, without losing its bite. It’s also smart, without getting bogged down by an overwhelming amount of story, and has a very present moral center of acceptance, fit for a souped-up fairy tale.

Based on “The Arcadia” by Sir Phillip Sidney — it’s a 16th century pastoral romance; don’t worry, it won’t be on the quiz — we follow the royal family of a prospering fictional nation, made glorious by “the beat.” Whatever it is, they’ve got it. But all is not perfect; the king Basilius’ (Frankie Leo Bennett) daughter Pamela (Bridget Adams-King), a prized beauty, keeps refusing every male suitor, and her sister Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza) has found true love with a shepherd, Musidorous (Jeremiah Alsop), who the king has refused. 

To make matters worse, a prophetic non-binary oracle, Pythio (Parker Guidry), predicts a series of changes coming to Arcadia which sound grim and devastating to Basilius. There will be socially inappropriate matches for his daughters, he will become an adulterer with his wife, Gynecia (Liz Norton); then his kingdom will get a new ruler. Basilius decides to keep the predictions to himself and closest confidant Dametas (Shane Roberie), and just … grab his family and run away! But as with many fables, not every grim prediction is what it appears, and sometimes trying to prevent a future that scares you can unintentionally squash beautiful things and valid people. Will Pamela’s attendant Mopsa (Deanalis Resto) be able to confess her true feelings? Will the entire royal court fall for the mysterious amazon Cleophila (also Jeremiah Alsop)? Will Arcadia be able to sustain “the beat?” Only time will tell. 

Directing team Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson make the work of wrangling dozens of performers on a very tight playing space seem effortless. Choreographer Breon Arzell injects whimsy, fun, and inclusiveness into every stage picture. Music director Kyra Leigh ensures audience enthusiasm never wanes; each Go-Go’s song can inspire warmth and nostalgia on it’s own, but when paired with the perfectly engineered stage moment, they catapult things forward. Most songs featured in “Head Over Heels” manage to avoid the trappings of jukebox musicals, just by mirroring a character want, or a community mindset. Not every song’s a winner, however. “Vacation” is a seminal Go-Go’s song, but felt shoe-horned in for the sake of including a favorite. But this musical does such efficient storytelling in the assignment of other hits,  I can’t hold anything against it. 

This may be the hardest working cast of 2019 so far, with the bracing amount of energy they exude. It’s not hard to get invested, and I dare anyone to refrain from hooting and hollering for them. Not only are we getting phenomenal performances, we are observing too-often neglected characters (and performers) that are queer, non-binary and gender fluid individuals, fully seen and fully embraced. 

Bridget Adams-King as Pamela and Deanalis Resto as her attendant Mopsa are both a joy to watch as they navigate their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and learn how to be brave and open about their love. It doesn’t hurt that they both have resonating voices that truly compliment each other. Liz Norton as an understanding queen Gynecia plays magically off of Frankie Leo Bennett’s willful and petulant king, Basilius. The joy comes from how musically and physically different they are; Norton booms in a powerful lower register and Bennett brings a sprightly falsetto. 

This ensemble is freakishly talented, with everyone bringing their own artistic specialty to each role. Caitlyn Cerza as Philoclea ups the ante for inspiring ingenues everywhere by treating us to a magical operatic range. Parker Guidry as Pythio owns the room with the smallest gesture of their hand, along with a rotating line up of sparkling, gauzy lingerie — something new for every entrance, of course. And you can’t take your eyes off Jeremiah Alsop as Musidorous or as the armor-clad Amazon Cleophila. As Musidorous adds complexity to their gender identity, Alsop is a genuine, endearing vocal presence to observe. “Head Over Heels” is  a sterling example of how we should regard self-discovery in the real world: with open arms.   

DICE RATING: d20 – “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This glam-rock fairy tale and gender non-conforming dance party has EVERYTHING.

Show: “Head Over Heels”

Company: Kokandy Productions

Venue: Theatre Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave)