A marvellous production of the musical Head Over Heels is currently being staged at the Zach Theatre in Austin.
It is best to brush up on your Elizabethan English for this one! While it is certainly reminiscent of Shakespeare, it is actually based upon The Arcadia, written in 1580 by Sir Philip Sydney. In this play, the shepherd boy Musidorus plans to elope with Pamela, elder daughter of Basilius, the Duke of Arcadia.
In this musical Basilius has been promoted to King, and Musidorus is in love with Philoclea, the younger daughter, but most elements of the basic plot from 1580 can be found here. It was conceived Jeff Whitty, who also wrote the book for the play. As a special treat to the audience in Austin, the adapter James Magruder made a personal appearance, and spoke about his experiences in bringing this 16th-century play to the modern musical stage. But for fans of late 70s and early 80s music, there was an even greater treat in store.
Head Over Heels is performed to the songs of The Go-Go’s, a female band that had a string of huge hits. All of these exuberantly infectious tunes are sung here, with instrumentals performed on stage by none other than Kathy Valentine, one of the original band members and a native Austinite! She joined Magruder on stage after the show to reminisce.
Valentine said that when this project began she was “somewhere between hiatus and retired. To get to play the music with something like a Texas Go-Go’s band” was very special but challenging. “Basically all the parts I had been playing since 1980 were not the same; they were the same parts but in different keys, and they would change and modulate for different singers. It was harder for me than the women in the band because they were playing it for the first time but I was relearning things I was used to doing in a certain way.”
MacGruder told Dave Steakley, Producing Artistic Director (who moderated the discussion), that “Yours is the only theatre I have ever seen that book for sale in the lobby,” referring to the original 1580 text by Sidney. This elicited great laughter. Magruder explained how the musical evolved. “Whitty created a first draft of this which was 3 and a half hours long and there was 45 minutes before there was a single song. They had the really novel idea of actually having the band play period instruments, which means tambor, lute and sackbut. But there was enough juice in the musical that it kept going. The next summer at Vasser College they changed the director and the musical arranger.” The guy who had done the original book disappeared, and that is when Magruder stepped in.
“I totally honoured Whitty’s insane idea and kept almost all of his characters. The book is in blank verse, which means every line is 10 syllables. The thing that upset me about the original Broadway production is that nobody thought that was a virtue, and it was actually something to scare an audience! The critics said ‘it sounds kind of Shakaespeary.’ I stole from The Winter’s Tale [by Shakespeare], shuffled around a lot of sings and added some.”
Looking back to the heyday of the Go-Go’s, Valentine said that about 1985 they “stopped worrying about being taken seriously, and just embraced who we were: a light-hearted joyful band that is not shallow. There is a lot of depth in the Go-Go’s music and one of the tings I love about this musical is it really shows audiences that only know the hit songs the kind of spectrum of music that we wrote and performed. The story is just so out-of-the-box that it really captured our spirit.” Valentine resisted the temptation Steakley offered for her to wear a tu tu during the performance of the song Vacation. “That’s a really terrible idea” she told him! But that did not stop some of the cast from donning their own tu tus for the song.
“I love performing,” said Valentine. “One of my favourite things about being a part of this musical is being up there and providing the soundtrack to action, something brand new. I’m going to be sad when it ends.” One lady in the audience told me Head Over Heels is “pointless fun,” meant in the best possible way. I agree, and what fun it is! Quite vively (a word used by Elizabethans, meaning ‘in a vivid or lively manner.’
The musical is full of vivacity and great vocals. Musidorus is played by Colin Trudell, who spends most of the play dressed as a female Amazon warrior (don’t tell the governor). He imbues the character with an entirely believable persona, which is no mean feat while wearing a wig and female armour. Great voice and fine acting; and he clearly enjoys camping it up. In one segment he is shown in a video clip on a big screen, swallowing a banana and sucking on a long candy.
But when it comes to glam, no one on stage can compete with Cecil Washington Jr. as Pythio the oracle. He/she rises above the stage on a platform several times during the show, each time in another outfit that would have made Liberace proud. Or maybe it’s better to think of Boy George! In any case, it’s a show-stopper every time Pythio appears. The ultimate outfit, in shimmering gold, is shown here.
‘Tis vain indeed to hide behind appearance. So says the elder daughter of the King. Pamela is played with rich abandon by Stephanie Jones. Whichever character she was referring too does not matter, as it literally applies to any member of the major cast as the plot progresses. I won’t give away the main elements of the plot. Suffice it to say that the King (played with appropriate buffoonery by Ryan Everett Wood) cheats on his wife with his wife (played to the hilt by Jill C. Holmes). What kind of plot can there be when a man has an extra-marital romp with his own wife?
In a book with multiple double-entendres, licentiousness unbounded, and cross-dressing galore, Head Over Heels is just the sort of musical that should be performed in every State Capitol, with all members required to attend. Perhaps the inability of the King in the play to control his subjects (and his own family) contains a parable: any head of government who goes too far will lose. And the people will be free to express their inner selves, glitter and all.
Head Over Heels runs thru Sept. 10, 2023. One of the finest productions I’ve seen at the Zach; Highly recommended!
Production photos by Sizanne Cordeiro
Photo of the after-show talk is by C. Cunningham