7/20/2019 HEAD OVER HEELS Actor's Express
JOY AND RAPTURE AND THE WHOLE DURN THING
So, start with an ambitious classic of 16th-Century epic poetry, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia, a luminous five-canto work that satirizes politics, romance, pre-destination, and, well, good old-fashioned lust. It is a work known by Shakespeare, who borrowed plot strands for King Lear and Hamlet and Winter’s Tale, not to mention the whole of the apocryphal Mucedorus). Now, add the songs of the Go-Go’s and a couple Belinda Carlisle solo works and stir in a heaping helping of gender identity politics, and you get the joyous creation that is Head Over Heels.
Let me make one confession at the top. When they were at their peak, the Go-Go’s were pretty much “under my radar.” At the time, my radio was always tuned to the Classical station, and my musical tastes were almost completely Broadway, with the smallest smattering of album rock – If it weren’t Springsteen, Billy Joel, Jethro Tull, or Emerson Lake & Palmer, I just wasn’t interested. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the group, it was that I just didn’t know them.
Which is to say, I went into this production not knowing most of the songs at all, “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” the only exception. Well, there’s also “Cool Jerk,” but I know it from the Capitol’s 1966 release, not the Go-Go’s 1981 cover. And I came out of it loving every single song. It makes me wonder how many other Top-40 groups of the 1980’s are out here waiting for me to “catch up.”
So, the bare bones of Sir Philip’s epic are here. Sure, the shepherd is now a real shepherd, not a prince in disguise, and everything after the first canto of The Arcadia is pretty much ignored. Mopsa is now a gentle and (very) attractive lady-in-waiting and not the horror first created 400 years ago. And no one dies. Well, Sir Philip brings all the dead characters back to life, so that hasn’t changed much.
To summarize, Basilius, King of Arcadia, rules the land with a heavy “We Got the Beat” … I mean heavy hand. He goes off to the Oracle of Delphi to learn the fate of his kingdom and his family. There, the oracle, Pythio, gives four prophecies, warning that if the first three come true, the fourth is the loss of his kingdom, followed by chaos, destruction, and … well, no more beat. In the tradition of epic classics all over the world, his quest to avoid his fate only makes it happen.
Did I mention the princesses, Pamela and Philoclea? Pamela, the elder, seems to find something a little bit wrong with every suitor sent to woo her. It’s almost as if there’s no man on earth who will satisfy her need for adoration. But she does have Mopsa, the faithful servant, daughter of the King’s steward, Dametas. Philoclea, the younger, is passionately in love with Musidorus, her constant companion since childhood. But he is only a shepherd and she is a princess, so there’s that little obstacle. And Basilius’ queen, Gynecia, is bored and ignored and wants a little excitement.
So, off they wend to Bohemia, land of Bohemians and artists! (La Vie Boheme!) Along the way they are rescued from a wild beast by a fierce and attractive Amazon who joins their party and …. Well, there are rules about spoilers, and, being a loyal servant of Basilius, I MUST obey the rules.
So, how does the light-hearted Go-Go oeuvre mesh with the high stakes drama of Sir Philip Sidney’s larger-than-life characters? Like a rapturous amalgam of the best of each, story and pentameter dialogue growing out of the Go-Go lyrics with that bloody infectious beat driving the whole thing along a well-oiled slope of miraculous predestination! You’d think the male characters would clash with the female-originated lyrics, but no! They just free up their female personas and let the rapture roll!
And I loved every member of this cast, down to its seven-member ensemble, who seem to be anywhere and everywhere, anyone and everyone, the Arcadian quest requires of them. Kevin Harry is more light-hearted than I’ve ever seen him, and his Basilius if a joyful tyrant, perfectly matched with Jennifer Alice Acker’s Gynecia, and their attempt at adultery (with each other) is a joy to behold. As the princesses, Abby Holland is a delight as Pamela, and her powerhouse voice is a rafter-shaking wonder (especially her “Beautiful” which establishes her over-the-top character from the get-go-go). Emily Whitely is winsome and wonderful as Philoclea, and Danny Crowe’s Musidorus is a stalwart hero(ine) who fully deserves her. Niki Badua’s Mopsa is another “win” in her ever-growing list of Atlanta musical roles and Jeff McKerley brings just the right amount of McKerley-ness to her father, Dametas. And what can be said about Trevor Perry’s Pythio, a gender-bending creation of epic proportions and vocal range who fully wins us all over to their side!
Freddie Ashley directs the whole ambitious thing, perfectly nailing the logistical nightmare that all these moving parts must (by definition) create, and Kari Twyman’s choreography is energetic, physically demanding, and elegantly beautiful. The set by Isaac Ramsey is simple – faux Greek facades at two ends of the playing area-between-two-audience-blocks with a beautifully realized faux-mosaic floor design – and allows for many locales and “in-betweens” to quickly move into and out of place. And Ben Rawson’s lights are a full-palette wonder of angle and brilliance and design.
So, will Head Over Heels inspire me to rush out and catch up with all the Go-Go’s work? Maybe. Will it inspire me to download the cast recording and add it to my collection? Probably. Will it linger in my memory like the spectacular “joy bomb” it most certainly is? Most assuredly.
Watching Head Over Heels is like drinking from a bottomless flagon of the best of wines, the kind that make you see ALL the silver linings, and leave you in pleasant repose, without a trace of morning-after regret. It is proof positive that Heaven is indeed a place on earth!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #AEHeadOverHeels)
For those of you with a taste for trivia, James Magruder, who adapted Sir Philip’s epic here, did similar duties for a 1732 Commedia Dell’arte French farce for the exquisite little 1997 musical, Triumph of Love. Someone should produce that! There’s no such thing as “too many cannons to wax.”
Another useless piece of information – one of the earliest novels ever, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, borrowed the name from Sidney’s creation, which by the way, was the first ever use of that name for a female character. Ever.