BY STEVE WONG
Head Over Heels, the latest live stage production by Proud Mary Theatre Co., is a delightful and bawdy Broadway musical comedy that leaves skidmarks of social acceptance on the heart and mind, as it reimages a classic 16th century story with 21st century nonbinary sensibilities, set the music of the all-girls rock band The Go-Go’s.
From the opening enthusiastic whoops and hollers by the charging-forth ensemble to the star-crossed lover raised from the dead, Head Over Heels is one of those plays that allow the patrons to just sit back and enjoy the fun without too much hard thinking. All of the singing and dancing, lights and music, great acting and suggestive dialogue will keep you entertained from start to finish. And yet, you’ll find yourself touched by how the meaning of love is broadened and redefined by an ancient story made relevant for today’s enlightened audiences.
The medieval storyline is just complex enough to be wildly fun. Cis King Basilius and his pre-feminist Queen Gynecia with their two daughters, vain Pamela and underrated Philoclea, have ruled Arcadia for generations by the old rules of tradition. But times are changing, and they have been told their kingdom is in danger of losing its “beat,” that intangible trait that makes them extra special. Even worse, if something is not done, all is threatened with extinction.
With the advice of the nonbinary and flashion-forward oracle Pythio, the royals with their entourage journey through forests to the mythical Bohemia to save their beat. But, of course, things get in the way. Things like, Philoclea is being courted by Musidorus, a lowly shepherd boy, much to her father’s displeasure. The older princess Pamela is ready for love but finding the right suitor evades her. And Pythio’s prediction that four (warning) flags would fall, signaling their fated downfall, haunts them along the way:
- “Thy younger daughter will bring a liar to bed. He thou shall forbid, she he’ll then assume.”
- “Thou elder daughter will consent to wed. She’ll consummate her love but with no groom.”
- “Thou with thy wife, adultery shall commit”
- “You will meet and make way for a better king”
The show is pretty much a laugh a minute. However, some serious issues keep bubbling up, such as the King’s dalliance, Pamela’s love sickness, and the appearance of an Amazon warrior woman who has caught the eye of just about everyone be them a he, she, or they. But when things get a bit heavy, it’s time for another vigorous song and dance routine by the ensemble and principal characters. The high-energy six-member ensemble are seemingly always either on stage or anxiously waiting in the wings ready to lighten the mood or just have a good time with such classic Go-Go’s songs like Get Up and Go, Vacation, and Our Lips Are Sealed. Be sure to give the hard-working, good-looking ensemble some extra applause. They are Dance Captain Samantha Rae Lee, Hugo Harvey, Waverly Speranza, Kirby Hood, Savannah Fain, and Andy Lecture.
Traditionally, most plays have a leading man and a leading woman. In this case, I would be hard to say which is which: Connor Vetter (a woman) is most excellent as King Basilius with the talented Schuyler Carson as Queen Gynecia or Grace Januchowski as Princess Philoclea with Myles Moore as Musidorus, the shepherd boy turned Amazon. As star-crossed would-be lovers, Januchowski portrays Philoclea sweet and innocent, and Moore’s Musidorus is a bit clueless but nevertheless leading man material. But given the chance, Vetter and Carson steal scenes with their rancorous marriage and tit for tat dialogue. In their own ways, both pairs have wonderful stage chemistry. Acting by Vetter and Carson is top notch and holds our attention without fail. Januchowski has one of the best singing voices heard in recent memory. And, Moore has a real natural talent for being humorous, physical, and, when needed, sincere.
Supporting cast include Celia Blitzer as elder princess Pamela; her no-nonsense handmaiden and eventual lover Mopsa played by Caroline Kennington; and Dametas, the King’s wise but goofy man servant, played by Producer/actor Sandy Staggs. These actors add hilarious depth to their characters, each one being an unforgettable character with baggage to boot. The developing lesbian relationship between Pamela and Mopsa is rivaled only by their outstanding duets.
Of all the actors and characters, the most outrageous, most unforgettable, most in-your-face characters are the oracle Pythio in the first act and the owl in the second, played by Victoria Bacharach, aka Versage, a veteran in the art of drag performance. From the first time that she slinked down the staircase from the defunct church’s baptismal to her flaming wingspan, Versage is a force of nature to be admired, marveled, and respected. She sings, she dances, she ad libs, she even has her own over the top costumes. In the fine tradition of privitoral theatrical characters played in drag, Versage is in a league of her own of her own making. If she is on stage, you are watching her, seeing a lot more than you might expect.
When you go see Head Over Heels be sure to get a good look at the five-man band, making the music happen. Originally, Staggs had wanted an all-girl band to play the tunes of The Go-Go’s. Alas, nary a band of female musicians could be found. But he did find The Guy-Guys, five men in wigs: Music Director Stan Weitrzychowsjki (keyboard), Tyler Stokes (bass), Shannon Cox (rhythm guitar), Shawn Allen (lead guitar), and Kevin Heuer (drums). Thanks to these guys, The Go-Go’s music is strong, danceable, and wholly recognizable.
Staggs and Director Maddie Tisdel are highly commended for bringing such an entertaining show to life in Upstate, South Carolina. In addition to being the founder of Proud Mary Theatre Co., the first and only LGBTQ+-centric theatre company in South Carolina. Again and again, Staggs has proven himself to be a thesbian of all seasons, working behind the scenes, on stage, in print, and wherever else he can promote the art of theatre and the nonbinary culture. As an avid fan of The Go-Go’s, Staggs has once again pieced together the talents of many to make a splash that will wash over theatergoers like Tito’s vodka over rocks with a twist.
I last saw Tisdel wearing a soccer jersey as she played #00, the goalie in The Wolves, a wonderfully disturbing play at The Warehouse in Greenville, SC, this past spring. In her roles as a high-strung goalie and as a debuting director, Tisdel is showing her leadership skills and the ability to get it done. Even when things don’t go as planned, she has the good grace to address her actors as “friends,” something that goes a long way in getting the best out of non-professionals.
But even the best onstage performances owe a debt of gratitude to those hard-working professionals who keep things moving along. Choreographer Michael McCrary’s routines filled the stage and beyond with dance and movement that verged on audience participation. Lighting Designer Bethany Lancaster gave obvious thought to the best colors to shine on the set, and I’ll note the especially good use of the classic spotlight. Hats off to Wig Designer Jerry Holt for all the wonderful hair that flowed and flowed and never came off, and the gorgeous Renaissance costumes by Kirby Hood, who also dances in the ensemble, along with Samantha Rae Lee (Dance Captain), Hugo Harvey, Waverly Speranza, Kirby Hood, Savannah Fain, and Andy Lecture.
Originally, Head Over Heels was conceived by Jeff Whitty, and his book was adapted by James Magruder. It debuted in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and three years later appeared on Broadway for a half-year run. The original source for the play comes from The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, a 16th-century prose by romance by Sir Philip Sidney. Even though it has been nominated for many awards on Broadway, none was awarded. Nevertheless, the play has a strong following by the LGBTQ+ community and those with open minds and hearts.
I highly recommend Proud Mary’s production of Head Over Heels. You’ll laugh, gasp, sigh, sing along, restrain yourself from jumping up to dance, and enjoy the art of community theatre as both entertainment and a source of better understanding of today’s world.