Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Head Over Heels
Also see Carole's review of Susan and God
The jukebox musical is the commercial Broadway commodity of our time. It's risky to develop a show with songs no one has heard before, so why not take a bunch of pop songs that everybody in the audience already knows and build a musical around them? Sometimes it hits (Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys), sometimes it misses (does anyone remember Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys musical?). Head Over Heels, a musical designed around the songs of the all-woman '80s group the Go-Go's (plus some from the solo career of lead singer Belinda Carlisle), wasn't exactly a flop, but you couldn't call it a hit either. It played on Broadway from July 2018 to January 2019, but never got a national tour.
It hasn't been totally forgotten, though. Lucky for us, Devon Frieder and her cast and crew are presenting Head Over Heels in Albuquerque for us to enjoy. And I must say, it is one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen in a long time. My thinking is that it never should have been on Broadway in the first place. It works much better in a small venue, up close and personal. It's a good show in its own right, but what I really love about this production is the high I get from seeing a bunch of talented young performers throw together a top-notch show with only a month of rehearsal time and almost no budget. Everyone on stage seems to be getting a kick out of being in it, too.
Faced with the problem of coming up with a plot that could incorporate songs like "Vacation," "Mad About You," "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Heaven Is a Place On Earth," and the title song, Jeff Whitty (Tony winner for Avenue Q) made a very odd choice. He adapted a book by the poet Sir Philip Sidney, who was born in 1554 and died at age 31 in 1586, shortly before Shakespeare started writing. The book, "Arcadia," was popular in its time, but is obscure now. I would guess that a few grad students studying Elizabethan literature are the only ones who manage to plow through it nowadays. Whitty conceived the story and wrote the original book of the musical, but he withdrew after the first production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. His book was then adapted by James Magruder into the show that made it to Broadway. You wouldn't think that a mélange of Sir Philip Sidney and the Go-Go's could possibly work, but it does.
"Arcadia" is a convoluted tale that takes place in ancient Greece, with some of the contrivances that we find in Shakespeare, like disguises that no one sees through, and the "bed trick" (i.e., sleeping with the wrong person in total darkness). The king of Arcadia, Basilius ("basileus" is the Greek word for "king"), and his wife Gynecia (Greek for "womanly") have two daughters, Pamela and Philoclea. Pamela, a great beauty, has many male suitors but rejects them all. Philoclea loves the shepherd Musidorus, but is forbidden to marry him because of his low status.
Basilius goes to Delphi where the oracle Pythio (here, a non-binary person) gives four pronouncements of what is to come. For example, one daughter will consummate her love but with no groom. (Hint: the song "Vacation" is set on the island of Lesbos.) Another says there will be a new king and Basilius will have to give up his crown. Now, anyone familiar with the Oedipus story knows that oracles always come true, no matter what you do to prevent them from happening. The characters in the story never know this, though, and in an attempt to evade the inevitable and remain king, Basilius packs up the whole court and sets off for Bohemia.
As in Shakespeare, once the characters get out of town and into the forest, strange things happen. Musidorus shows up, disguises himself as an Amazon, and both Basilius and Gynecia lust after him. One of the prophecies was that Basilius would commit adultery with his own wife. There's a handy cave nearby, total darkness. You figure it out.
We're not seeing this show for the plot, though. It's just a very clever groundwork for the jokes and the singing and dancing. The point is that the audience has a great time. At the performance I attended, there was a lot of laughing out loud and delight at the choreography and voices. Devon Frieder, who amazes me year after year, produced, directed, choreographed, and plays Philoclea. She brought a couple actors in from New York, but everybody else in the cast of twenty is local, and what a great job is done by all involved.
The "where-did-this-guy-come-from!" guy is Kodiak Thompson, who plays Musidorus. He's a terrific singer, dancer, and comic actorand hunky too. (He's one of the ones from New York. Broadway should be knocking on his door.) Special accolades go to Rikki Carroll, hilarious as Pamela, which is a big role. She had to learn the part and step into the production as a replacement just a few days before opening, but you wouldn't know it. Her performance is flawless. Jacob Waldron was a perfect Basiliushard to believe that he came all the way from New York just for this one night's performance. (Ron Gallegos is scheduled to take over the role for the rest of the run.) I certainly hope he returns to New Mexico for a longer stay.
Also shining brightly are the two "elders" in the cast, Jillian Foster as Gynecia and Danny McBride as the servant Dametas. Not that they're old, it's just that everyone else looks to be in their twenties or teens. Amy Carter is a very good Mopsa, Pamela's lady-in-waiting (and more than that, ultimately). Devon gives her usual excellent performance as Philoclea, and I didn't know until now that she had an operatic voice in reserve. Nick Handley is magisterial but very funny as Pythio and really pulls off the fabulous gowns he has been given to wear. The ensemble members are too numerous to mention, but they are all most impressive, especially in the super-energetic dance numbers.
Speaking of costumes, Diane Baca has provided some really lavish period dresses. The set is pretty bare-bones, but the lighting by Brittney Baker and sound by Lando Ruiz are very good. The musical track is recorded, but the singing is real, and Madi Frost should get a lot of credit for the musical direction.
All in all, Head Over Heels is not what you would expect in a Broadway musical, but that's what I like about it. The writers dared to be different. Maybe it didn't pay off financially, but artistically, I think it's a successand an awful lot of fun. Thanks to Devon Frieder for the opportunity to see it in Albuquerque.
Devon Frieder Productions' Head Over Heels runs through January 19, 2020, at the Musical Theatre Southwest, 6320 Domingo NE (near Central and San Pedro), Albuquerque NM. Performances are Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 3:00 and 7:30, Sunday at 4:00. For tickets and information, please visit www.purplepass.com.