Review: Kokandy's HEAD OVER HEELS Has Got The Beat
As I sat writing the review for Kokandy's Chicago premiere of the recently closed Broadway musical HEAD OVER HEELS, the United States Women's National Soccer Team were poised to win back-to-back World Cups (the only other team to succeed in back-to-back wins was the Italian men's team in 1934 and 1938), perhaps changing the face of American football -sorry, soccer.
What does a successful women's soccer team have to do with a musical? Especially if that musical features a book by Jeff Whitty (Tony for Best Book of a Musical for AVENUE Q) that itself is based ever so loosely on The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (or simply The Arcadia), a 16th century long prose pastoral romance by Phillip Sidney and the 17th century stage adaptation THE ARCADIA by James Shirley?
It turns out a lot. The musical features music by The Go-Go's -the most successful all female rock band of all time. The group brought its unique mix of punk, new wave and rock to the mainstream in the 80's and to this date are still the only all-female band to have written their own songs, played their own instruments and topped the charts -selling some 7 million records worldwide.
Like the USWNST, The Go-Go's had to work harder to prove themselves. Lesser male bands have had their legacies enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but not The Go-Go's. It really makes you start to think that maybe the societal constructs of gender and gender identity might just be there to hold people back from things that are rightfully theirs (be it equal pay or space in a museum).
Superbly directed by Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson, the show features all the usual tropes typical of Elizabethan comedies. A quest that leads the cast into a forest where everything soon goes astray? Check. Gender-bending disguises and mistaken identities? Check and check. On the surface, it is a light-hearted romp, but there's more going on here. In a nutshell, Elizabethan comedy meets modern constructs of gender fluidity in Kokandy's top-notch production of HEAD OVER HEELS.
The ancient Greek kingdom of Arcadia is home to a magical "beat" (The Go-Go's hit "We Got the Beat"). Among other things, the beat turns the kingdom's grapes to wine and its regimented rhythm dictates norms and keeps all Arcadians in line.
The latter may have less to do with the beat than the iron rule of its Napoleonic king, Basilius (Frankie Leo Bennett). Basilius is quick to dismiss and/or ignore the concerns of his long suffering wife, Gyncia (Liz Norton) and his devoted viceroy Dametas (Shane Roberie). He also forbids his youngest daughter Philoclea (an enchanting Caitlyn Cerza) from marrying her true love, a poor shepherd boy named Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop who delivers a knockout performance). Cerza and Alsop share some incredible onstage chemistry and their characters' situation tugs at your heartstrings as a result. Alsop's beautiful singing (with a trio of sheep providing vocal backup) on "Mad About You" -a hit from The Go-Go's lead singer Belinda Carlisle's successful solo career-- really cements his character's likability.
Basilius oldest daughter Pamela (Bridget Adams-King -a Broadway belter if ever there was one) seems to be the only one initially willing to defy her father and proves that she is able to match him in stubbornness, much to the exasperation of her trusted lady in waiting Mopsa (Deanlis Resto who commands the stage whenever they are on it). "Beautiful," a lesser-known track from the band's 1994 reunion, perfectly encapsulates Pamela's over-inflated sense of self.
The Greek Gods -every mischief-makers they be-have appointed a new oracle of Delphi a self-dentified "nonbinary plural" and "Vision of Nowness" named Pythio (the exquisite and enchanting Parker Guildry whose star has been steadily rising since 2015's TRIASSIC PARQ). Pythio reveals four dire prophecies to the King and Dametas. Should each of the four come to pass, Arcadia will lose its beat and fall.
Against the advice of Dametas, the King neglects to tell his court and subjects of the real prophecies and instead leads the kingdom into the forest on a hunt for a golden stag.
Phythio isn't quite done exerting themselves into the proceedings however and they appear before a sad and dejected Musidorus to suggest that Musidorus should disguise himself as an Amazonian warrior named Cleophila. Gender-fluid shenanigans ensue with the entire court falling in love with her.
Breon Arzell's choreography and Kyra Leigh's music direction are both a marvel and marvelous. It's fun to watch, but it is truly amazing that the energetic cast is able to jump and move as much as Arzell requires them to and still belt out the songs in perfect pitch. The costume design by Uriel Gomez appropriately has most of the ensemble in gender-bending outfits. For the male-identified members of the ensemble, this includes a feat that is no doubt well-known to the female-identified members: jumping and moving in time in high heels.
Much like The Go-Go's pushed boundaries, the show consistently pushes the audience out of their comfort zone. I'm not surprised that it didn't fare better on Broadway (the show would seem to be better suited Off-Broadway and in Chicago storefronts such is the case with Kokandy's top-notch production). Older audience members might have a hard time following the non-binary, genderqueer subplots, while younger audience members might find some of the Elizabethan language hard to follow and -God help me for saying this-even wonder who the heck The GoGo's are.
HEAD OVER HEELS, like the music that beats throughout it, is joyous, infectious and universal. Belinda Carlisle once quipped "There should be a lot of bands like The Go-Go's out there, but there aren't." and the same can be said about the musical inspired by their music. You probably have never seen anything like it.
If we are all lucky, perhaps that will soon change on both accounts.
Kokandy's production of HEAD OVER HEALS runs through Aug. 25 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets $40. 773.975.8150 or www.kokandyproductions.com