BWW Review: HEAD OVER HEELS at Circuit Playhouse
The orchestra strikes the opening drumbeats and bass guitar riffs, instantly recognizable to 80's music aficionados as The Go-Go's' hit "We Got the Beat." The curtain rises, and it is immediately clear that the cast has come to play . . . in a BIG way. There is an incredibly fun show playing at The Circuit Playhouse in Overton Square that you may not have heard about. That show is Head Over Heels, a jukebox style musical featuring songs by none other than the quintessential 80's girl group, The Go-Go's, interwoven throughout what can best be described as a 16th century comedic farce. Yes, you heard that right folks. Notwithstanding the prevalence of biographical jukebox musicals in recent years, featuring the song catalogs of such icons as Carole King, Cher, Donna Summer, The Temptations, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and Gloria Estefan, among others, it doesn't get much more original than Head Over Heels, which utilizes the unlikely musical source material against a completely unexpected backdrop.
This, of course, begs the question: "With all the jukebox musicals out there, do we really need a Go-Go's musical too?" Minutes into Head Over Heels, however, the answer becomes abundantly clear. That answer is yes, very yes. We need it more than could ever be imagined. We may need it more now than ever. All hyperbole aside though, while the show is silly and ridiculous, it is also an unabashedly joyous and hilarious romp - part 80's dance party and part Shakespearean comedy. Ultimately, the credit goes to the outstandingly committed ensemble, which goes all in, and never loses site of what Head Over Heels is supposed to be (and never tries to be anything else).
The story (loosely based on The Arcadia, a late 16th century pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney), takes place in the Kingdom of Arcadia, in which all facets of society are regulated and given order by an enigmatic "Beat." Presiding over Arcadia is King Basilius (a charismatic Chris Steinmetz), who, with his wife Gynecia (Christina Hernandez), has two daughters: the hilariously self-involved Pamela (Angela Thompson), and Philoclea (Hope Elizabeth Schafer), who is enamored with the lowly local shepherd Musidorus (Daniel Stuart Nelson). Also in the mix is Basilius's viceroy Dametas (Michael L. Jackson), and his daughter Mopsa (Brooke Papritz), who also happens to be Pamela's handmaid.
Enter Arcadia's new oracle, the non-binary Pythio (Chris Bryant as "Pat McCooter"), who, believing Arcadia has become too "old school," makes four prophecies regarding the future of Basilius's family and the kingdom at large, including that a new king will soon take Basilius's place. Determined to maintain his rule, Basilius hits the road (with the entire family, Dametas, Mopsa, and a lovelorn stowaway in tow) to slay his successor before Pythio's four prophesies are realized and the beat is lost forever. Hilarity ensues.
What makes this production of Head Over Heels great is ultimately the unflinching commitment of the cast, which dives deep into The Go-Go's' catalog and embraces the sheer silliness of the entire premise. Standouts include Ms. Thompson, who ably channels her inner Belinda Carlisle while strutting the stage and fanning herself during her character's signature song "Beautiful," and the eminently likeable Mr. Nelson, who turns "Mad About You" into a surprisingly sweet ode to puppy (or in this case, sheep) love. He is outstanding. Vocally, special mention goes to Ms. Papritz, who blows the lid off all of her musical numbers, and Ms. Schafer, who anchors the lesser known track "Here You Are" toward the conclusion of Act II, and turns it into a gorgeous production highlight.
As Pythio, Mr. Bryant (performing as Pat McCooter, his drag persona who regularly graces the stage at Dru's Place), shows tremendous presence in his Playhouse on the Square debut. He expertly balances the ominous yet playfully light hearted essence of the character, and the production is always more fun and exciting when he is on the stage. Mr. Jackson's Dametas is equally strong, as he runs all over the theater, panic escalating as each of Phythio's prophecies materialize. Finally, there is Mr. Steinmetz and Ms. Hernandez, who turn Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" into an anthem of botched adultery while doing some pretty incredible things with a light and a bedsheet.
There is a particularly well-choreographed swordfight, rhyming couplets (and unlikely couplings), a trip to Lesbos (what better way to utilize the classic "Vacation"?) and all The Go-Go's music one could possibly desire. This literal hodgepodge of elements may provoke some skepticism, but quickly any such doubts give way to great amusement and laughter. Yes, the production has some rough edges (which actually work perfectly for a show of this nature), but in terms of entertainment value, Head Over Heels at the Circuit Playhouse simply can't be beat.
Featuring great direction and choreography by Whitney Branan, Head Over Heels runs through October 27, 2019 at the Circuit Playhouse, 51 South Cooper Street, Memphis, Tennessee.