Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Aug. 25
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I’m probably not the right audience for Kokandy Productions’ Chicago premiere of “Head Over Heals” at Theater Wit.
Although I get a kick out of original writer Jeff Witty’s (“Avenue Q”) concept of mashing up Sir Phillip Sidney’s 16th century prose pastoral romance “The Arcadia” with modern pop music, the appeal of The Go-Gos, the 1980s California all-female rock band that seems to be the 2018 jukebox musical’s main reason for being, is pretty much lost on me.
For fans, I guess part of the fun is seeing how the group’s hits—among them “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation” and former lead singer Brenda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You” – are incorporated into James Magruder’s adaptation. But, in truth, that’s not always done very well, and the script, which cannily combines archaic language and contemporary jargon, is more amusing than the repetitive lyrics. It’s also loaded with double entendres, in jokes, theatrical references, and other silly stuff designed to delight those in the know.
To its credit, Kokandy’s five-person band pounds out the loud (but not ear-splitting) music with a rough-edged aplomb I’m told is typical of The Go-Gos, and the large ensemble’s singing ranges from good to very good, both individually and together. There’s often a sloppy, ragged, somewhat chaotic quality to the production, directed by Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson, and the execution of Breon Arzell’s choreography, but no one could fault the cast for a lack of energy and exuberance.
The story, considerably simplified and reworked from Sidney’s, trades on old Shakespearean tropes as filtered through a decidedly nonbinary sensibility. The big opening number, “We Got the Beat,” seems to signal King Basilius’s (Frankie Leo Bennett) satisfaction and that of his subjects, but it soon becomes clear that all is not well in the tradition-bound paradise of Arcadia.
For one thing, the king’s older daughter, Pamela (Bridget Adams-King), who prides herself on her beauty, has rejected dozens of suitors, Meanwhile, Philoclea (Caitlyn Cerza), the younger sister Pamela puts down for being plain (naturally, the casting indicates otherwise), has fallen in love with a poor shepherd, Musidorus (Jeremiah Alsop), much to the annoyance of her father, though her mother, Queen Gynecia (Liz Norton), is more sympathetic.
Warned of impending disaster by the oracle at Delphos, the gender-fluid Pythio (Parker Guidry), Basilius decides to flee with his court to Bohemia, hoping along the way to defeat the ruler he’s been told will usurp his place.
Naturally, Pythio’s predictions—including undesirable matches for both daughters and cuckoldry for the king, as well the loss of his crown—come true, but not in the ways expected. The catalyst is Musidorus, who at Pythio’s prodding, assumes the disguise of Amazon warrior Cleophila and kills a lion, prompting the ardor of Basilius, Gynecia, and Philoclea for different reasons.
Even Pamela is enamored, or at least jealous of her sister, but in composing a poem to her ideal mate (full of bawdy rhymes with “China” and such), she realizes that her real passion is for her handmaiden Mopsa (Deanalis Resto), just then on “Vacation” on Lesbos. Mopsa’s father Dametas (Shane Roberie), who is Basilius’ main adviser, also figures heavily in the plot, including a surprise denouement involving Pythio.
Funny as some of them are, all the complications become tiresome after a while, and a trim of 20 or 30 minutes would not be amiss. The most enjoyable performances come from Norton as the admirably stately and strong-willed Queen Gynecia, Guidry as a fabulously androgynous Pythio (with by far the best costumes), and Alsop, who is hilarious as the Amazon Cleophila and has the funniest scene. Stumbling on a pair of skeletons and a trunk, he finds a note that says, “These sad remains are of our theater troupe, starved for lack of serious message.”
“Head Over Heels” actually does have a serious message about acceptance, and it’s not delivered with any subtlety. At times, the show also seems to substitute a narrow set of stereotypes about diversity for the usual picture of its absence, but there is enough wit in the script and enthusiasm in Kokandy’s performance for a lively evening of theater.