With ‘Head Over Heels,’ ArtsWest Go-Goes for Broke

Add New Wave hits to a sexually updated Elizabethan comedy and the result is... a bit of a mess
| Updated: December 2, 2019

The most winning thing about Head Over Heels, the 2015 musical now running at ArtsWest, is the matter-of-factness with which book writer Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) foregrounded the same-sex pairings and gender fluidity only hinted at in the show’s 16th-century source. Streamlining Sir Philip Sidney’s preposterously complex romance Arcadia, Whitty kept the setting and premise (a happy once-upon-a-time kingdom under threat from a mysterious prophecy) and several characters and incidents, primarily a round-robin network of fallings-in-love. But what’s heartening is that, though a gentle be-yourself moral is included at the end, none of this is presented as transgressive or daring (or worse, naughty); there’s no titillation factor at work in all the revelations and couplings. We’re beyond that. The ingenue falls for her BFF, and, you know, no big whoop.

But that’s not all: The show was further transformed into a musical through the addition—or more accurately, insertion—of songs by the Go-Gos. Your favorites are here: “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” and more than a dozen others. Whitty and co-adapter James Magruder, though, decided to stick with a period literary style: lots of iambic pentameter, lots of lines like “Who is’t dares trespass on my bosky coppice?” 

This could be the reason the book and the songs, enjoyable as they are each on their own, never quite combust, or enrich each other. It’s a great elevator pitch—Elizabethan comedy meets ’80s pop hits!—but Head Over Heels really is only that. There was potential there, but the show didn’t turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts, and frankly it doesn’t feel as though much thought or effort was put into making it greater. It’s the risk of every jukebox musical, that the songs never stop seeming arbitrary, either their mere presence or the choice of whose catalog was raided. If not the Go-Gos, it could just as well have been… well, name anyone you like: the Bangles or Cyndi Lauper or Jerome Kern or Motörhead. 

On opening night last Thursday, noise and bustle hadn’t completely coalesced into focus and energy, but, for the reasons above, it’s a hard piece to make coalesce. And this production is ambitious. To the challenging language (think the floweriness of Shakespeare dialed up a notch) and a cast of 19, director Mathew Wright added intricate blocking and choreography (by UJ Mangune) on an un-spacious stage. It’ll all surely benefit from settling-down time. First impression, though, is that this Head Over Heels is something of a potluck: Lots of people brought delicious dishes, but what ended up on the table is more random and scattershot than satisfying.

Through December 29. Times and prices vary. ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, West Seattle; artswest.org

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