🎭 A Joyous Break | “Head Over Heels” @ Pasadena Playhouse

Head Over Heels @ Pasadena PlayhouseBack in late 2018, I happened to listen to the Little Known Facts podcast episode with Bonnie Milligan. Bonnie, at the time, was starring in a new Broadway musical, Head Over HeelsHead Over Heels tells the story of … well, we’ll get to that later.  The podcast interview impressed me a number of ways; most particularly, it made me curious about a musical where one of the main leads was being played by a larger woman. The musical was built around the music of the LA band The Go-Gos,  so the music was fun and bouncy and it just sounded like it would be a great show. I got the cast album, and looked forward to it eventually going on tour.

Then it closed quickly on Broadway after 36 previews and 164 performances. This made a tour unlikely. This would be another musical like Big Fish, Tuck Everlasting or Bandstand that had great music, but no official tour. I resigned myself to probably not seeing it. But, like with Big Fish and Bandstand, I happened to luck out. In this case, the Pasadena Playhouse announced a regional reimagining and remounting as their first show, post-pandemic. Just like with Big Fish (Musical Theatre West, 2014) and Bandstand (Broadway in T.O., 2019), I’d get to see it. Tuck Everlasting, I’m still waiting for you.

Head Over Heels is primarily a jukebox musical, as noted above. The story they chose to pull the songs together Book 1 is The Arcadia, a prose pome by Sir Philip Sidney. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the original Book 1:

In Book I, the Duke of Arcadia, Basilius, journeys to the oracle at Delphos and receives a bleak prediction: his daughters will be stolen by undesirable suitors, he will be cuckolded by his wife, and his throne will be usurped by a foreign state. Hoping to preempt this fate, Basilius entrusts the Arcadian government to his loyal subject, Philanax, and retires to a pastoral lodge with his wife, Gynecia, their attractive daughters, Pamela and Philoclea, his boorish servant, Dametas, and the latter’s repulsive wife and daughter, Miso and Mopsa. In a nearby city, Pyrocles and Musidorus pass the night; they are cousins, princes, and best friends, and are famous throughout Greece for their heroic exploits. Pyrocles, upon seeing a picture of Philoclea at a gallery, is overwhelmed by a passionate desire to see her in person. To that end, Pyrocles disguises himself as Cleophila, an “[Amazonian lady] going about the world to practice feats of chivalry,” and heads for Basilius’s pastoral lodge, accompanied by the skeptical but loyal Musidorus. Deceived by Cleophila’s feminine disguise, Basilius falls in love with her, and invites her to stay with the family. While Musidorus covertly observes this meeting, he is overwhelmed by a passionate love for the elder daughter, Pamela, and decides to disguise himself as a shepherd, Dorus, in order to gain access to her. When everyone congregates in an arbor to hear the shepherds sing, a lion and bear attack the party. Cleophila kills the lion, saving Philoclea; Dorus kills the bear, saving Pamela. Cleophila’s manly puissance leads Gynecia to suspect her secret male sex, while Philoclea forms an intense “sisterly” affection for Cleophila.

As I said, that’s the original story. As transformed by Jeff Whitty‘s conception and original book, and then adapted by James Magruder, the story takes on a decidedly modern feel. This was made clear in the original casting by a number of ground-breaking and gender-bending selections beyond the casting of Milligan — most notably, the casting of a non-binary performer, Peppermint, as the oracle. You can find a synopsis of the Broadway production on the wikipedia page; but it is essentially the same story.

For the Pasadena Playhouse production, Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton Direction, Choreography, Updated Conception reimagined the show a bit more. They knew that, post-COVID, audiences wouldn’t want to sit for 3 hours in a small building. So they cut the story down to a single 80-minute act, mostly by cutting extraneous story bits. They knew the audiences wanted fun, so they moved the show from a standard proscenium presentation to an immersive presentation (similar to what was done for Pirates at the Playhouse in 2018). They covered the orchestra seats with a dance floor, making it level with the existing stage. They put bleacher seating on the stage, and organized the audience into three groups: one group standing and dancing on the dance floor, interacting with the actors; one group in the stage seating; and one group up in the balcony as an upper mezzanine. They encouraged the audiences to dress up and dance and have fun (although no open bar, as with Pirates); I think a lot of the fun of the show was watching the audience. This, of course, while making sure EVERYONE was vaccinated and had their masks on.

They then cast the show in the manner of the original production: gender bending all the way. What a shock that must be for the Pasadena Blue Hairs, but it was fabulous. The cast consisted of Alaska 5000 Gynecia, the Queen; Lea Delaria Basilus, the King; Yurel Echezarreta The Player; Freddie Pythio, the Oracle; Tiffany Mann Pamela, the elder daughter; Shanice Williams Philoclea, the younger daughter; George Salazar Musidorus, the sheperd; and Emily Skeggs Mopsa, the handmaiden. If you just look at the cast, you’ll see a number of drag performers; this element of cross-dressing continues into the show and — I’m pleased to say — isn’t being used to play up the laughs in a Bosom Buddies sense, but as an integral part of the characters and the stories. So in Head over Heels, it is appropriate and it works.

The performances themselves were strong. It is clear that the cast is having a hell of a good time and that sense of joy is clear in their performances and audience interactions. Every show will be a bit different because of the interactions — they dance with the audience, they pull them on stage. The singing is strong, and the performances are stellar. Personally, I was most impressed with Skeggs look and voice, Mann’s singing, the playfulness of both Williams and Salazar, the wow factor of Echezarreta, the voice of Freddie, and the … everything of Alaska 5000.

I think the most telling thing about the show was that the mood was infectious — and in a good way, not a COVID way. I went into the show feeling a bit down. My wife (who was supposed to go with me) fell last Saturday and broke her kneecap, tibia, and fibia, and has been in the hospital for the last week — and she’ll be there at least two weeks more for in-patient rehab. Finding someone to go with me made me realize how few friends I had (luckily, a friend from my synagogue’s mens club joined me). So I was down. But I left this show happy and feeling good. Especially right now, this is what theatre needs to do. We need shows that bring us joy, and Head Over Heels at the Pasadena Playhouse certainly does that.

Music for the show was provided by an on-stage all female band: Laura Hall Assoc Music Director/Keyboards; Nikki Stevens Guitar 1 (Electric / Steel-String Acoustic / Mandolin / Ukulele); Hisako Ozawa Guitar 2 (Electric / Nylon & Steel-String Acoustic / Banjo); B. B. Kates Bass; and Nicole Marcus Drums / Percussion. Eric Heinly was the contractor that assembled the band. Kris Kukul was the music director. Simply put, the band rocked!

Turning to the production side of the equation: David Meyer Scenic Design warped the playhouse. He transformed the physical space into a dance club, with an upper mezzanine, lower bleachers, and a dance floor with risers (including the names of the Go-Gos painted here and there), with a metal structure surrounding the sides and in front of the balcony for the actors. It was remarkable, and must give the actors quite a workout. But it made for a fun show. This was augmented by the work of Hahnji Jang Costume Design, who had this odd modern mix of costumes: classic 50s style for the Queen, suit and cigars for the King, playful sweatpants and dresses for the daughters, and just real imaginative stuff for the rest. The costumes were supported well by the work of Christopher Enlow Hair and Wig Design , some of which were classic (like Alaska 5000), some were playful (such as the Players or the daughters), and some were so unique to the character (like the King’s). About the only weak point was Stacey Derosier Lighting Design design that at points left the actors in a deep shade, making them hard to see. This may have been an artifact of the warping of the space screwing up the possible lighting lines. Danny Erdberg and Ursula Kwong-Brown‘s Sound Design sound was generally clear, although on the lower bleachers a bit of the volume was lost.  Other production credits: Jenny Slattery Assoc Producer; Brad Enlow Technical Director / Production Supervisor; Sara Sahin Stage Manager; Lydia Runge Assist. Stage Manager; Davidson & Choy Publicity Press Representative; The Telsey Office, Ryan Bernard Tymensky Casting. The program does not give a credit for a COVID safety officer; that’s too bad, as that role deserves acknowledgement right now. However, the production team does deserve credit for strong back-stage diversity that mirrors the diversity on-stage. Danny Feldman is the Producing Artistic Director.

Note: You don’t get the program for the show until you are leaving, and — starting what is sure to be a trend — there are a limited number of printed programs. They encourage you to visit an online interactive program instead via a QR code. This, in my eyes, is poor. Twenty-five years from now, will this online site be available? I still have programs from when I started at the Playhouse back in 1988 (Down an Alley Filled With Cats … I’m looking at you). Yes, it saves paper, but they could just as well print on recycled paper without as much color or clay.

Head Over Heels continues at the Pasadena Playhouse until December 12. Tickets are available through the Playhouse; discount tickets may be available on Goldstar.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at Actors Co-op (FB) and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.

Upcoming Shows:

For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. That may change later in 2022. December brings The Bands Visit at Broadway in Hollywood (FB) and A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Turning to 2022: January brings Everyone’s Talking About Jamie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). February brings Something Rotten at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); lastly, March brings The Lehman Trilogy at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Ann at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarOn Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!