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Review: HEAD OVER HEELS is a drag at the Pasadena Playhouse

Campy ode to inclusivity has two left feet

Review: HEAD OVER HEELS is a drag at the Pasadena Playhouse

"Head over heels, where should I go?

Can't stop myself, out of control

Head over heels, no time to think

Looks like the whole world's out of sync"

If you are a person who enjoys a good "out of sync," then you belong in the turbulence-riddled realm of Arcadia by way of The Pasadena Playhouse where kings are queens, handmaids love above their station and amazons are...well, lots of things to a lot of people. Sound good? If so, we've got an experience for you.

I say "experience" because HEAD OVER HEELS, the play with music by the Go-Go's which reopens The Pasadena Playhouse to in-person performance, isn't really a musical. Yeah, there's a story (adapted from Sir Philip Sydney's poem THE ARCADIA, no less). and there are a virtual canon of jukebox musicals in existence that have done more with less. But who is anybody kidding? The glittery and glammy camp-fest currently flaunting its feathers at 39 S. El Molino Avenue in the City of Roses wants more than anything else to be a party, a dance-happy, nostalgia-embracing ode to love in all of its crazy forms during which we also get to groove along to "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Mad About You" and a dozen more Go-Goey nuggets.

Underneath all this good will, there is also an agenda. In case the underlining of James Magruder and Jeff Whitty's script doesn't hammer it home with sufficient force, allow me an observation. In the space of HOH's only sporadically entertaining 90 minutes, no fewer than three of the play's six principal characters have the occasion to literally let their hair down (and in a couple of cases, to then shake those freed locks with wild abandon). Granted, Tiffany Mann, Shanice Williams (playing a pair of princesses) and George Salazar (as a lowly shepherd turned Amazon warrior) all have some serious manes to loosen, perhaps with some assistance by hair and wig designer Christopher Enlow. To the extent that we are all participants in this Arcadian free-to-love-for-all, any member of the audience could also fly his/her/their inclusivity flag and see who salutes it. Unquestionably, HEAD OVER HEELS has its heart in the right place. But the directing team of Jeremy Koons and Sam Pinkleton let the preaching get in the way of the fun and end up throwing one clunker of a party.

Scenic designer David Meyer has reconfigured the Playhouse into a split-level forum where the Mezzanine faces the bleachers, and the performance space sits in between. That lower area is effectively a dance floor, peopled by audience members who are instructed either to shove aside when cast members come through or else to join the action. A pair of risers on the dance floor suggest, yes, a circus, which is what this HEAD OVER HEELS might have been with a little more sideshow fanfare. A pair of stairways and a three-sided catwalk permits cast members to get up into the higher rows and spur us on to applaud or sing along.

The last time the Playhouse messed this radically with its auditorium was back in the beginning of 2018 when a delightfully staged PIRATES OF PENZANCE plopped us playgoing landlubbers in the middle of a beach party. As nobody needs reminding, that experience was well before the arrival of a certain deadly virus, meaning that bumping up against a Major-General's daughter, a pirate or a fellow playgoer did not pose any kind of a health risk. Now, if you are among the dance floor populace, shaking it to "Vacation," you are doing so in the company of audience members who - although masked and vaccinated - may very well be in your face. One other note: per the opening night pre-curtain announcement, the Playhouse has undergone a substantial renovation of its HVAC system. The improved air conditioning unit, however, had not yet arrived making the Mezzanine uncomfortably toasty. I can't imagine how it must have felt to be packed in among the dance floor groundlings. Consider yourself warned.

To the play. The original book by Jeff Whitty has been adapted by Magruder and reconfigured further by Koons and Pinkleton. The original source material, Sydney's 1593 romantic pastoral, is played out in all of its confusing weirdness which is not the easiest thing to follow even without drag artists and characters in disguise. In brief, you have a royal family trying to escape a grim prophecy, an oracle that delivers said prophecy, a cross-dressing shepherd and a handmaiden both of whom who love ambitiously, a misguided king and a kingdom trying to maintain "the beat." Because if the beat dies out, we basically get the apocalypse.

Let nobody accuse these players of laziness. As King Basilius and Queen Gynecia, headliners Lea DeLaria and Alaska 5000 work their height disparity in the ways you might expect a short stocky comedian and a tall willowy drag performer to do. Neither performer has to do much musical heavy lifting, but DeLaria (best known for her work on TV's ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) has a solid musical pedigree. Alaska 5000, meanwhile, masters the lascivious leer and, as would befit the Queen, sports Hahnji Jang's costumes with plenty of flair (at one point she makes reference her maroon wrap being fashioned from vegan Arcadia chinchilla).

Mann and Williams as the aforementioned princesses are the best thing about this HEELS. Mann, as pampered older sister Pamela, claims to be "not vain...I am objective" and then proceeds to rip into the self-adoring anthem, "Beautiful." As wallflower younger sis Philoclea, Williams powers through "good Girl" and is equally strong with George Salazar's shepherd Musidorus on "Our Lips are Sealed." She's no shrinking violet; honestly there's not a shrinking violet in the entire blooming arboretum. Notwithstanding, given the campiness, the low stakes, the fact that we know everything is going to end in happily ever after, it is very difficult - if not impossible - to care one iota whether any of these individuals find their bliss.

Since it is selling the '80s sound belonging to a certain all-women quintet, props to music director Kris Kukul, associate music director Laura Hall and the five-woman HEAD OVER HEELS band who bring these songs back to life. It's enough to make one pine for a time when everybody was proclaiming "we got the beat!" Then again, a rocking '80s night at your local Karaoke establishment might accomplish the same feat.

Photo of Lea DeLaria and Alaska 5000 by Jeff Lorch



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