Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Head Over Heels
Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent review of Alan Cumming Is Not Acting His Age

The Cast
Photo by Reg Madison Photography
You'd think that using the bouncy, 1980s pop tunes that were recorded by the all-girl group The Go-Go's as the songs for a musical based on a 16th-century prose would seem to be a bit of a disconnect. However, the upbeat tunes work extremely well for the charming Head Over Heels, which has a modern sensibility as it celebrates love in all shapes, forms and genders. Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera is presenting the local premiere of the musical that had a short Broadway run in 2018 in a sharply directed and smartly cast production that makes for a funny, feel-good show and a welcome and quite moving celebration of love.

Based on Philip Sydney's "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia", Head Over Heels tells the story of a kingdom in turmoil. After hearing of a prophecy from an oracle that threatens to take away their "beat," the power that ensures their prosperity, the King of Arcadia and his people journey off in an attempt to prevent the prophecies from coming true. Along the way, the King, his wife, and his two daughters discover things about themselves they didn't realize.

On the surface, Head Over Heels is a musical chock-full of silly fun, mistaken identities and disguises, romantic entanglements, and sexual hijinks. However, the original book by Jeff Whitty, which has been adapted by James Magruder, also incorporates a fun nod to classic Shakespearean cross-dressing comedies, a shout out to female independence and empowerment, and also teenage rebellion that seemed to be the foundation of many of the Go-Go's songs. That's why what on first glance may have seemed to be an odd pairing actually turns out to be a wise and winning choice. And even though the plot may be a little convoluted, it still makes for a delightful tale.

The score includes the hit Go-Go's songs "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "Vacation," along with two songs the group's singer Belinda Carlisle made famous on her own, "Mad About You" and "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." For the most part, these songs and the 10 other in the show work to depict the various stages of romance with lyrics that fit surprisingly well to express the feelings, hopes and desires of the characters. The arrangements are fun and they sound great under Lindsay Noel Miller's sharp music direction of the exceptional five-piece band.

Director Toby Yatso does a wonderful job in staging the show to keep the pace brisk while also ensuring his gifted cast create realistic characters that, while often camping it up, never cross the line into caricature. Yatso also makes certain that the adult subject matter and attention to gender-fluid characters and various sexual preferences are treated with respect. Choreographer Youngjoo Jang delivers a nonstop assortment of varied dance styles that perfectly tie into both the period setting of the piece and its modern sensibility. The sets, costumes and lighting by Douglas Clarke, Maci Hosler, and Wade York, respectively, are all colorful and creative.

While it's mainly an ensemble show, at the center are a quartet of actresses who project an abundance of feminine strength. Aydan Bruce is a knock-out as the feisty and vain eldest daughter of the King and Queen, Pamela, with a voice that soars to the rafters. As the other royal daughter Philoclea, Jena Allen is warm and fetching with a lilting voice that shines on her songs. Christian Johannsen proves to be quite commanding as Queen Gynecia, and once she realizes she doesn't have to be restless and unfulfilled, Johannsen astutely shows just how powerful the Queen can be. As Pamela's handmaiden Mopsa, Evening Calabrese is touching and appropriately sure of herself.

Leo Gallegos is endearing and charming as the shepherd Musidorus, who is in love with Philoclea but dresses as a woman to be close to her and finds he actually enjoys it, even if he ends up being the object of everyone's affection. Connor Dunning is appropriately self-serving as King Basilius, who thinks he always knows the correct thing to do. Christian Fronckowiak is funny as the King's assistant Dametas, who has to deal with the impending doom of the prophecies, and Desmond Woodward is commanding, fierce and fun as Pythio, the gender-fluid oracle. The members of the large ensemble are wonderful and are used quite effectively throughout.

Head Over Heels is a musical with a refreshing open-mindedness about gender and sexuality. In addition to it being a show with a modern sensibility and having important lessons about tolerance, the need to be yourself, and accepting others for who they truly are, no matter their gender, sexual identity, or sexual preference, it's also a whole lot of fun.

Head Over Heels runs through November 20, 2022, at Arizona State University Music Theatre and Opera, with performances at the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the ASU School of Music, 50 E. Gammage Pkwy in Tempe AZ. Tickets and information are available at

Songs by The Go-Go's
Based on "The Arcadia" by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and original book by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder
Director:Toby Yatso
Choreographer: Youngjoo Jang
Music Director: Lindsay Noel Miller
Intimacy Coordinator: Rachel Finley
Fight Choreographer: Alex Kass
Scenic Designer: Douglas Clarke
Costume Designer: Maci Hosler
Hair Designer: Sharon Jones
Makeup Designer: Leslie Simon
Property Designer: Kate Leonard
Lighting Designer: Wade Yorke
Sound Designer: Zak Gutzwiler
Stage Manager: Kate Leonard

Basilius: Connor Dunning
Gynecia: Christian Johannsen
Pamela: Aydan Bruce
Philoclea: Jena Allen
Dametas: Christian Fronckowiak
Mopsa: Evening Calabrese
Musidorus: Leo Gallegos
Pythio: Desmond Woodward
Justin Carey
Matthew Dodaro
Saylem Dupont
Karsten Flake
Matt Griesgraber
Liuyi Jiang
Jessica Lester
Beaux Mali
Kyleigh Perales
Adam Robles
Bri Sieminski
Xingyu Wang

Offstage Swings:
Searlait Green
Arjun Paramore
Kendal Turpin
Molly Virtue