Theater Review: Immersive 'Head Over Heels' Finds Musical's Sweet Spot

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 18, 2021

The Pasadena Playhouse has finally reopened its doors and fittingly does it with a show that is an all-around celebration.

When it arrived on Broadway a few years back, this musical reimagined the classic play "The Arcadia" (by Sir Phillip Sidney) with the music of the 80s all-female band The Go-Go's. Adapted by James Magruder, the show follows the romantic travails of a royal family trying to find themselves amongst a turbulent time.

While the Broadway production utilized more conventional staging and costume design, the Pasadena Playhouse has altered the look of their theater and used a mish-mash of contemporary and classic costume design.

The show utilizes an unusual production design with the action of the show taking place in the theater's audience area, with the addition of a three-sided walkway on the same level as the mezzanine. Audiences have the choice to sit in the mezzanine or sit on the stage (now outfitted with stadium seating). Or they can stand in the center of the action on the floor. As the show has the feel of a party, for those willing to stay on their feet for the 80-minute running time, it's a fun way to be immersed in the action.

The forward-thinking plot revolves around King Basilius (Lea Delaria) and his wife Queen Gynecia (Alaska 5000) who run the kingdom of Arcadia. Eldest daughter Pamela (Tiffany Mann) doesn't want to be bothered with suitors, while her younger "plainer" sister Philoclea (Shanice Williams) is in love with her childhood best friend — the shepherd Musidorus (George Salazar) — who also returns her affections.

But the kingdom is threatened to lose its "beat" and succumb to turmoil when the Oracle Pythio (Freddie) arrives warning of four prophecies that will come to pass. Basilius is determined not to let the prophecies ruin his rule and sets out to slay the Oracle. His family follows along with Musidorus who is determined to ask for Philoclea's hand in marriage.

There is a lot of playful mistaken identity and characters hiding their real selves, which adds to the zany fun. But the best part is how the songs of the iconic girl group are worked into the show. In many jukebox musicals the material feels forced or awkward. Here, while you really can't imagine it working, it works beautifully and makes for a toe-tapping joyous time.

As directed, choreographed, and conceived by Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton, this production has a chaotic party energy oftentimes feeling like a traveling theater troupe arrived to thrill local audiences. And I say that in the best of ways. The staging is fun and clever, the performers are all in, and many have powerhouse vocals. (Tiffany Mann's "How Much More" brought the house down and reminded me of the celebrated performance of "You Oughta Know" by Lauren Patten in "Jagged Little Pill.")

All of the actors are game, and many come from the theater world. Emily Skeggs is a Tony winner for "Fun House," Salazar was in the critically acclaimed Pasadena Playhouse production of "Little Shop of Horrors," Mann has been in "Waitress" on Broadway among others, Yurel Echezarreta was in "Moulin Rouge" and "Head Over Heels" on Broadway (he'll next be seen in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story,"), and, of course, Lea Delaria has a long history of film, television, stage, and recording credits. Another bit of inspired casting is renowned drag performer Alaska 5000 who adds a terrifically dry and sassy energy to the role of the Queen.

Backed by a five-piece all-girl band, "Head Over Heels" is the perfect way to usher in the holiday season. It's full of infectious joy, and a wonderful return to the theater. I was mad about it!

"Head Over Heels" runs through December 12th at the Pasadena Playhouse. For tix and more info visit PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.