Saturday, June 17, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 405, A Review: "Head Over Heels" (Connecticut Theatre Company)

By James V. Ruocco

Think about it for a moment - the pitch session that led to the actual mounting of the 2018 musical "Head Over Heels."

An Elizabethan comedy romp that takes its cue from Sir Philip Henry's 16th century prose poem "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" featuring the chartbusting song hits of the American rock band The Go-Go's while playfully nourishing subject matter about acceptance, homosexuality, drag queens, penis size, seduction, adultery and sexual awakening.

Not exactly "The Sound of Music," "My Fair Lady" or "Anything Goes."
And therein, lies the attraction.
Naughty, giddy, glittery and appropriately queer, "Head Over Heels" is absolute freewheeling fun, offset by an escapist preserve and gender-fluid identity that's impossible to resist.
It's also the perfect fit for Connecticut Theatre Company, arriving just two months after the theater's hypnotic staging of "Spring Awakening" and three months before the venue's wild and wacky mounting of "Zanna, Don't!" a 2003 musical set in a parallel universe where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is strictly taboo.
"Head Over Heels" is glide-and-slide kitsch, LQBTQ diverse and off-the-wall flash and pan all rolled up into one. Feel-good songs like "We Got the Beat," "Vacation," "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," "Head Over Heels" and "Our Lips Are Sealed," amongst others, heighten and complement the mood.

The premise of the musical - a cotton candy gooey one at that - entails the prophesized collapse of a Tudor empire beset by raging hormones, flirtation and romping, same-sex couplings, mistaken identities, non-binary oracles, jealous siblings, musical theatre humor, cries of freedom, greed and corruption and high tempo madness.
As devised by Jeff Whitty (he wrote the original book) and adapted for the musical stage by James Magruder (Whitty quit the show due to conflicts with the director), "Head Over Heels" addresses its ongoing story arcs, character exchanges and idiosyncrasies with dashes of pep and vigor reminiscent of all those popular Shakespearean comedies where boys pretend to be girls and vice versa and that recognizable jukebox musical reinforcement where nothing is questioned, nothing has to make sense and lines of dialogue spring out of nowhere signaling yet another catchy and popular song that's meant to carry the action forward without hesitation.

Staging "Head Over Heels" for Connecticut Theatre Company, co-director's Duane Campbell and Emma Gulick ignite the two-act musical with enough witty camp and froth to make it tilt and spin accordingly and reflect the original conceit springboarded by both Whitty and Magruder. No matter how crazy or idiotic things get, this talented duo unite as one to craft a fast-paced entertainment that brims with feeling, youthful impulsiveness, rampant delight and atmospheric sensation, punch and triumph.

Musically, "Head Over Heels" celebrates the beats and punkish qualities of the Go-Go's, wrapped around a truckload of carefully chosen and well-placed musical numbers of discovery, influence, style and boom originally introduced decades ago by the popular five women group headlined by Belinda Carlisle and Charlotte Caffey.
They are, in order of performance: "We Got the Beat," "Beautiful," "Vision of Nowness," "Get Up and Go," "Mad About You," "Good Girl," "Vision of Nowness/Beautiful (reprise)," "Automatic Rainy Day," "Cool Jerk," "Vacation," "How Much More," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Head Over Heels," "This Old Feeling," "Turn to You," "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," "Lust to Love," "Here You Are," "Mad About You (reprise)," "Finale" and "Get Up and Go (reprise)."
At Connecticut Theatre Company, Nick Stanford serves as musical director alongside "Head Over Heels" musicians Nate Dobas, Jordan Brint, Nick Zavaglia and C. Descoutures. 
As the musical unfolds, Stanford and company address the Go-Go's song tableau with knowingness, efficiency, complement and exploration. There's rhythmic vigor and delight here, as one Go-Go's hit follows another. There's concert vibe and connection. There's slate and step. There's glow and movement. There's also a fruitful collaboration and trust between orchestra and performer that is communicated in perfect harmony, which, in terms of artistic expression, gives credence and specificity to every one of the musical numbers.

Casting wise, "Head Over Heels" succeeds largely to the pivotal, commanding and energetic performances of several of the musical's key players - Joey Abate, Montana Telman, Taylor Klein, Janet Aldrich, Kerrie Maguire, Scott "Scooter" Hauser, Joe Berthiaume and Chris "C.S." Dunn.
Everyone, more or less, gets his or her moment to shine (Maguire, Telman and Abate offer spectacular, stand out performances), each giving "Head Over Heels" a comedic flair and musicality that circles round and round with wicked abandonment straight right through to the story's confirmed and hilarious resolution.

"Head Over Heels" is being staged at Connecticut Theatre Company (23 Norden Street, New Britain, CT), now through June 25, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 223-3147.

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