Head Over Heels at Pasadena Playhouse is a dance party with no beat
Head Over Heels is a Broadway musical that gifts audiences the unlikely mash-up of the music of the Go-Gos and Sir Philip Sidney's Renaissance poem "Arcadia." It's a show that bursts with exuberance and a message of self-love and acceptance, but the new production of it at the Pasadena Playhouse does not have the beat.
As conceived, choreographed, and directed by Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton, the show lacks the precision and finesse to make it truly sing. It's staged in the round with the cast strutting their stuff in a nightclub-disco style setting complete with lots of Christmas lights, neon, and shiny, gold foil curtains. It's an admirable attempt to make the audience part of the fun, but it backfires as an artistic choice.
The cast's playing field is limited to three small platforms in the space and an elevated catwalk. The floor itself is filled with more theatergoers, an audience of Go-Go Groundlings as it were. Surely, the intention was to make the action more immediate. Instead, it seems as if the cast spends the majority of their time trying not to fall off of something or bump into someone, taking away from their emotional focus and ability to connect with the material. Additionally, it basically makes choreography impossible.
As vocalists, the cast is full of stellar talents — they bring bravado and verve to the pop-rock melodies of the Go-Go's music. But their performances are given in broad strokes, more pantomimic and caricatured than reflective of any deep connection with the text.
Head Over Heels offers a great book by Jeff Whitty and, adapted by James Magruder, is abundant with a celebration of love in all its forms (Peppermint became the first transgender actor to originate a principal role in Broadway in that production).
The casting certainly reflects that ethos, but the performances don't dig deep enough to give the material the oomph it requires. It's all raucous jukebox musical fun, but here, it never elevates beyond that.
Lea DeLaria garbles her way through an often literally incomprehensible performance as King Basilius. She is obviously having a hell of a good time, but it's hard to be in on the joke when she swallows her lines and her focus is predominantly on winking at the audience rather than playing the text.
RuPaul's Drag Race alum Alaska 5000 is a divinely smart choice for Queen Gynecia, but the character's intellect and frustrations are subsumed by the way she turns even her quieter moments into drag camp.
Though no one really digs below a surface level, there are standout performances. Yurel Echezarreta as the all-purpose Player shines with his sleek dance moves that feel straight out of Paris Is Burning. Newcomer Freddie makes the best of Pythio/The Oracle, bringing down the house with their opening number. But the role feels oddly muddled and reduced in the context of the messiness of the staging.
The core lovers – Pamela (Tiffany Mann) and Mopsa (Emily Skeggs) and Musidorus (George Salazar) and Philoclea (Shanice Williams) — offer the most compelling work. Their pairings suffer from a distinct lack of chemistry, but individually, they sing their hearts out and provide heaps of charisma and talent to distract from the production's overall lack of meticulousness.
Head Over Heels is designed to be over-the-top fun, but it requires an emotional undercurrent to make it land with the provocative heart it intends. This production simply lacks that. Heaven may be a place on earth, but you won't find it at Head Over Heels in Pasadena. B-