What happens when a Renaissance tale of royal romance written in iambic pentameter collides head-on with the jukebox music of the 1980s all-female group, the Go-Go’s? And what if twists and turns of the story inspired by Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia (1580s) now include same-sex love, gender-bending left and right, and a “non-binary, plural” Oracle of Delphi? New Conservatory Theatre Center enthusiastically attempts to answer these questions as the company opens Head Over Heels, the adult, fairy tale musical with book by Jeff Whitty, further adaptations by Sir Philip Sidney, and original songs of the Go-Go’s that premiered in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and that had a successful run at the San Francisco Curran in 2018 before opening on Broadway.
The kingdom of Arcadia prides itself in its ability to move in unison as if in a hyped-up aerobics class as can be seen in the opening scene as its subjects romp about pumping arms and bodies in multi directions and postures while singing, “Everybody get on your feet, we got the beat.” However, there is command that the arrogant, controlling King Basilius (William Giammona) has received from Zeus via mouth of a snake dropping from the sky to go see the new Oracle of Delphi that might very well put the muzzle on the music he and his subjects love so much.
The flamboyant, heavenly-sent serpent Pythio (Rotimi Agbabiaka) in high-heeled, red leather boots and lots of green glitz declares to the king that unless four things happen Arcadia will lose its beat; and he, his kingdom. After all, what king wants to give up his crown for a better king, get caught in an affair (but without being unfaithful to his wife), marry off his older daughter (but to no groom), or marry off a daughter to a liar he has as king has forbid her. Basilius’ answer is not to tell anyone other than his faithful viceroy, Dametas (David Bicha), but instead to take all the court on a journey to slay what he now claims the Oracle has demanded: A golden stag. Singing “Get Up and Go” in full harmony, the entourage of family and servants heads off to Bohemia.
Prior to all this drama, the king’s oldest daughter, Pamela, has once again rejected the latest suitors paraded before her as they do cartwheels and high kicks. In a flowing voice peppered with dramatic dips and diva flair, Ella Ruth Francis sings “Beautiful is all I see when I look at me” as her Pamela flirts more with herself than any young man who comes before her. As she journeys to Bohemia with her family, she begins discovering through a poem that she writes that rather than a manly body, what she actually craves has bodily curves and rhymes with “wits” and “china” (among other words not suitable for this review!). Singing “How Much More,” Pamela becomes absolutely hysterical in her yearning as her desires turn into a tantrum state, knocking over a tent full of cast members serving as closets and chests holding her clothes and pillows. The focus of her secret attention becomes Mopsa (Danya El-Kurd), the daughter of the king’s Viceroy. When the two finally discover their forbidden attraction, both sing with googly eyes for each other a hyped-up “Turn to You.”
But more illicit love is also in the air. A shepherd boy who tends to talk in tongues, Musidorus, loves outside his class boundaries the younger royal daughter, Philoclea (Kimberley Cohan). After several false and funny attempts, Musidorus finds clear speech and uses his fine, nicely toned voice to declare in song his love in “Mad about You.” It takes a gender-changing intervention by the Oracle Pythio for him to join the royal train to Bohemia, now transformed into an armored Amazon warrior. That intervention leads to several other misplaced infatuations and mix-ups, including a humping, bumping nighttime tryst by King Basilius and Queen Gynecia (Stephanie Temple) as they ably and convincingly sing singly and then in duet “This Old Feeling” where repeated “I love you, Oh yes I do” is sung hilariously by the spouses to each other but who both think they are actually singing in bed to the Amazon.
While there are certainly moments of well-sung numbers, too often throughout the production various solos or duets are delivered with too much over-done and false-sounding effects. Sometimes the result is in voices piercing the air in overly loud, shrilling, and unattractive screeches; other times, in sustained notes wandering flat; and in one actor’s case, in notes sung that open so wide to be shallow and without depth. The singers are not helped when the three-person, back-stage band is at times over-amplified so much through overhead speakers to cause balance and lyric-understanding issues (perhaps leading to some of the over-singing). With a cast that has proven themselves talented in other Bay Area productions, my belief is that the fault lies less with the individuals themselves and more with the directors of music and production.
At issue in this production also is the ensemble’s choreography and some aspects of the costuming. In the original Head Over Heels at the Curran, there was – like in this production – an aerobic feel to the dancing and moves that mirrors the 1980s sounds of the Go-Gos with the body-stretching, robotic, energetic movements of the original being truly wowing and exciting (at least in this reviewer’s eyes). The choreography of the NCTC staging, on the other hand, often feels too much like dropping in on a neighborhood jazzercise class, even made more so due to costuming choices for the ensemble members that resemble the tights and loose-fitting tops one sees in such classes. Numbers too often have the feel of a fairy-tale musical geared toward children rather than one that is an adult version. For example, a chorus line of sheep that in the original version featured sexy, kinky, wooly creatures is instead in this production a line-up of what I think are sheep prancing around with curved hands for hoofs looking and acting more silly than sexy.
To undertake a musical like Head Over Heels that was conceived as a big-stage, big-budget show and that only recently played locally before going to Broadway is both courageous and risky for a company the size of New Conservatory Theatre Center. In other cases, NCTC has hit the target in bringing a large arena musical to its more intimate setting (e.g., Take Me Out and Avenue Q). In this case, the transition from big stage to smaller does not work so well even with a cast that clearly is having a lot of fun and working hard to please.
Rating: 2.5 E
Head Over Heels continues through January 12, 2020 on the Ed Decker Stage of the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
Photos by Lois Tema