By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
On its surface, “Head Over Heels” shouldn’t work.
A 16th-century romance rendered in period-appropriate prose, mashed together with the instantly recognizable music of the 1980s all-female pop rock group the Go-Go’s, doesn’t exactly scream “match made in heaven.”
But throughout its 2018 run on Broadway, “Head Over Heels” defied those snap judgements. Monumental Theatre Company Director Jimmy Mavrikes went into one of those Broadway performances highly skeptical, but he left a convert.
When licensing rights opened for “Head Over Heels,” Mavrikes leapt at the opportunity to bring the production to Monumental’s 68-seat black box theater on Episcopal High School’s campus. The show is set to run from March 5 through 23 at Episcopal’s Ainslie Art Center.
With its message of self-love, as well as its inclusion of nonbinary characters and same sex relationships, “Head Over Heels” was an opportunity for Monumental to practice what it preaches.
“The people we’re making theater for, we want you to come and feel like, ‘I see my story there,’ whether it’s in an experience, a visual or just an emotion,” Beth Amann, Monumental’s managing director, said. “So, for us doing this show, it was really about putting our money where our mouth is.”
“Head Over Heels” is based on a book and play by Jeff Whitty that was taken to Broadway by James Magruder. The roots of the story go all the way back to a 16th century text, Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.” The play takes the kingdom of Arcadia, with its star-crossed lovers, fateful prophecies and royal politics, and adds a queer twist with a generous pour of 80s beats.
In this version of Arcadia, the lives of royals and common folk are ruled by the “beat.” King Basilius receives four prophecies from the oracle Pythio, who warns the king that Arcadia is in danger of losing its “beat” if it sticks with tradition and ignores change.
In an attempt to cheat Pythio, Basilius sets out on the road, with his family in tow, to prevent one prophecy – “You will meet and make way for a better king” – from coming to fruition by killing his potential successor.
From there, the family takes a journey of self-discovery and romance that bridges the gap between old English prose and the empowering music of the Go-Go’s.
“The original story is so complex and the Go-Gos music is very complex, and so because it’s so complex, and you’re doing it all at once, the stakes are stupid high,” Greg Atkin, who plays the king’s advisor Dametas, said. “… That’s what makes really good high drama.”
Monumental’s cast and crew have pushed themselves in order to bring such an ambitious production to their rather intimate stage. The 12 cast members only had about four weeks to learn Ahmad Maaty’s high-energy choreography, the Go-Go’s vocal-range-pushing songs and the difficult-to-master prose of the text.
For actor Rachel Barlaam, this is her fourth time working with Monumental, and it’s been all consuming, she said. Barlaam plays one of Basilius’ daughters, Pamela, who is seen as the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Barlaam doesn’t just want to impress the audience with her performance; she wants to live up to the precedent set by her character.
“I have a day job, but during my day job I’m thinking about the show. When I come home, I work on the show, and then I come to rehearsal and I work on the show,” Barlaam said. “But it’s because I care so much. I believe in my character. I believe in this show. And I want to be good. I want to be Pamela – she’s perfect. I want to be perfect. So, yeah, it’s tiring, but it’s worth it.”
“Not to toot her horn for her: There’s a song in this show where I’m pretty sure everyone is going to be speechless by the end of it. It’s almost operatic,” Atkin said.
Coming into rehearsals, Atkin hadn’t performed in a musical in at least seven years. He had mostly been doing Shakespeare and other dramas, and he said he wasn’t sure he would be able to push his baritone voice into the high register required for his part in “Head Over Heels.”
“When you have a support system that’s not coddling you or ignoring you, you feel like you have the ability to grow as an artist, which is a real skill,” Atkin said. “Now I can sing notes I never thought I could before.”
Over the last few weeks, the cast has finally started to get a handle on the songs and Maaty’s mashup of 80s-inspired dance moves and Renaissance-era formations. Each musical number is designed to embody a different aspect of 80s culture; one number is based entirely around jazzercise, Barlaam said.
“Head Over Heels” is, first and foremost, entertainment, Amann said. The music is inherently fun and full of toe-tapping, knee-bouncing bops, while the heightened language and script aim for character-based comedy and honest moments.
But Monumental didn’t decide to put on the show just because it’s a good time. In the centuries-wide gap of diverse, seemingly incompatible influences and the stories of the characters, there’s an underlying message that is worth belting out, Barlaam said.
“One of the reasons that it really works is the ultimate message of the show – self-discovery, self-love, acceptance – that ties everything together,” Barlaam said.
“Head Over Heels” spotlights people who often play second fiddle – or no fiddle at all – to more traditional, heteronormative characters. Pythio is notably nonbinary, making them the first nonbinary main character in a Broadway musical. Several other characters identify as queer and are involved in queer-identified relationships.
Amann hopes that through all the heightened performances – and they are heightened: The show features a rendition of “Vacation” that Atkin called a “lesbian power ballad” – audiences will be able to find a message that is as relatable now as it was in 1580.
“I also think there’s something very specific about saying that that message has existed in all these time periods,” Amann said. “It exists today, it existed in the 1980s with the most successful all-female pop rock band in North America, it existed in 1580 when the novel came out that was incredibly progressive for its time and sexually scandalous in some ways.
“It reminds you that we’re always going to be learning about ourselves,” Amann said. “We always need to be considerate of what others are going through. And that it can be really fun along the way to just let people be who they are.”
For the generation of theatergoers who grew up with the Go-Go’s, the music can be a point of access to a show that has such progressive messages and themes.
For younger generations unfamiliar with the music, “Head Over Heels” can be an opportunity to see a broader spectrum of experiences represented on the stage and find someone to relate to.
The theater company hopes the show can be a vehicle for empathy and understanding, as well as an entertaining night at the theater, the cast and crew said.
“I want you to come see this show because I don’t think you’re ready for what we’re about to do to you, in a great way,” Atkin said.