Gerilyn Brault (left) and Lauren King Thompson in "Head Over Heels." Photo by Andrea Agosto
To fully enjoy “Head Over Heels,” it is necessary to accept the incongruity of characters speaking in blank verse one moment, then breaking into ‘80s Go-Go’s lyrics the next.
Once you’re past that, s’all good.
Diversionary Theatre had planned to stage “Head Over Heels,” written by Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) and adapted from Sidney’s text by James MacGruder, in the spring of 2020. Three years after the official acknowledgement of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Head Over Heels” is closing Diversionary’s 2022-2023 season. It also happens to be the swan song for Executive Artistic Director Matt Morrow, who’s departing to become artistic director at Center Repertory Company in Northern California. Morrow co-directed “Head Over Heels” with Steven Brotebeck, who directed a previous show built upon pop songs – “Girlfriend” with the music of Matthew Sweet – at Diversionary in 2019.
Make no mistake: the Go-Go’s are more pop band than anything else, which is why their songs work so well in “Head Over Heels.” “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” for one, has show tune written all over it.
This is a strange but completely likable show. It’s based on Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century pastoral romance “Arcadia,” of all things. Basilius, king of the realm (Scott Ripley), is warned of by an oracle (Faith Carrion) that the “Beat” that keeps the kingdom intact is threatened. At the same time, he’s trying to marry off his older daughter Pamela (Gerilyn Brault) to a worthy suitor while shunning the shepherd swain (Joey Kirkpatrick) who’s eyeing younger daughter Philoclea (Adelaida Martinez).
Basilius’ strong-willed queen Gynecia (Amanda Naughton) is frustrated by most of this and especially frustrated by her blowhard of a husband. When the shepherd is persuaded by the nonbinary oracle to dress in women’s clothes and Pamela learns that her handmaid Mopsa (Lauren King Thompson) is in love with her, two foundations of “Head Over Heels” become clear: The story has all the wild complications of a Shakespearean romp. And playwright Whitty is making a trenchant comment on gender identity, otherness and acceptance, which thrusts this show emphatically into the now.
Throughout, Go-Go’s tunes propel the storytelling – at times appropriately, lyrically speaking; at other times apparently at random. I’m not a fan, per se, so some of the songs in “Head Over Heels” were foreign to me. About all of them, though, are accessible and compatible with the spirit of the show.
The musical begins with the band’s best remembered tune of all – “We’ve Got the Beat,” setting the tone for not only the soundtrack of “Head Over Heels,” but the high-spirited choreography (by Katie Banville), well executed by the show’s large ensemble.
There were some sporadic sound problems on opening night which undoubtedly will be corrected, though the five-member onstage band led by Patrick Marion rocked with nary a moment of unwanted feedback.
The Diversionary cast is exceptional, starting with Brault, whose Pamela is a hoot and a holler. The high wig she wears in the first half of the show, looking like something Elton John borrowed from Effie in “The Hunger Games,” doesn’t detract from her comic timing or lovely singing voice.
Twenty-three-year-old Martinez is a sweet and sweet-voiced presence throughout, and Naughton as always can do no wrong onstage.
Berto Fernandez and Carrion wring maximum effect from their character roles.
It seemed as if “Head Over Heels” never completely balanced its messaging with its antics. Both are very obvious, but in a show like this one, that’s okay. Call it a terrible cliché, but there really is something for everybody in this crowd-pleaser of a show.
“Head Over Heels” runs through June 18 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.