Whoever would’ve imagined that a new, surprisingly entertaining musical comedy, based upon a lengthy 16th century poem by Sir Philip Sidney, conceived and fashioned into a script by Jeff Whitty, and adapted for the Broadway stage by James Magruder, would evolve into a toe-tapping jukebox musical?
With a score adapted from the songs of popular 80’s girl band, The Go-Go’s, this perky show feels not only original but groundbreaking. And, in many ways, it is. The musical follows in the footsteps of other unlikely tune-filled Broadway hits such as “Spring Awakening” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Debuting in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the show ran for a month in San Francisco but its next stop was a dazzling 2018 Broadway production that just closed this past January.
Kokandy Productions is making theatrical history by presenting one of the first regional stagings of this musical, one that’s bound to become a cutting-edge new standard in theatres around the country.
It’s a farcical, gay-friendly, gender-fluid story that offers lessons about acceptance and thinking outside the box. The show is particularly noteworthy because a main character is proudly non-binary, a first for a Broadway show.
A pastoral parable, the show revolves around two plot points: trying to circumvent a devastating, four-part prophecy ordained by Pythio, the Oracle at Delphi; and attempting to bring about a happy-ever-after ending for several ill-fated, star-crossed lovers.
Chauvinistic, outspoken King Basilius, ruler of Arcadia, and his much-ignored Queen, Gynecia, are hoping that their eldest daughter, Pamela, will finally choose a husband from among her many suitors.
But the reason Pamela isn’t excited by any of the men is that deep inside, she’d prefer to be romantically involved with someone of her own gender.
The problem facing Philoclea, the king and queen’s younger daughter, is that she’s fallen in love with her childhood friend, Musidorus, a handsome, young shepherd who’s below her station.
To complicate these issues, the spark has left the royal couple’s own relationship making it difficult for them to empathize with their children’s romantic issues.
Co-directed with spirit and spunk by Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson, and choreographed with pep and a breezy nod to the more innocent 80’s by Breon Arzell, this show becomes the perfect carefree summertime spree.
It bursts with familiar songs like “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Mad About You,” “Cool Jerk,” “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” as well as the title song and others.
Kyra Leigh’s scintillating musical direction as well as the accompaniment provided by her five-member onstage band, make the Go-Go’s songbook sound fresh and almost contemporary.
A whimsical fairy tale-inspired set designed by Chris Rhoton and lit in dazzling technicolor by G. “Max” Maxin IV, creates a magical quality.
Uriel Gomez’s gender-fluid costumes are a hybrid of Elizabethan elegance and avant-garde guise. Kudos to the artistry provided by intimacy director Sarah Scanlon and fight choreographer Kate Booth that add much to this production.
This Kokandy cast, especially the hardworking ensemble, is a multi-talented menagerie of theatrical triple-threats.
Liz Norton is, as in every role she undertakes, simply majestic as Queen Gynecia. Last seen in Music Theater Works’ “How to Succeed…,” Norton is a fine example of how talent and experience work hand-in-hand to create a performance that not only stands out, but sets the pace for everyone else on stage. Norton is stunning in this multilayered role.
Several of the younger performers shine with a brilliance that make them equally memorable.
As King Basilius, the effervescent Frankie Leo Bennett, almost unrecognizable with his beard and bushy hair, is powerful and very funny. Remembered for so many past stage appearances from “In the Heights” and “Poseidon: An Upside Down Musical,” to “Sweeney Todd” and “Altar Boyz,” this gifted young actor creates an unrelenting monarch whose journey in this story takes his character the farthest.
The two princesses, Bridget Adams-Kin, as pretty, but egocentric Pamela, and Caitlyn Cerza, as “plain” but modestly warmhearted Philoclea, are both equally wonderful. Blessed with incredibly powerful vocal talent, these two actresses earn the audience’s empathy and applause as their characters struggle to understand themselves and ultimately achieve what their hearts want.
With such diverse credits on her resume as “Fifty Shades of Shakespeare” and “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale,” Deanalis Resto brings vocal power and emotional passion to the supporting role of Mopsa, Pamela’s feisty lady-in-waiting.
Jeremiah Alsop bursts onto the stage with a particularly earnest and heartfelt performance as the cross-dressing shepherd, Musidorus. The talented Alsop brings layers of humanity and an astute understanding of his deceptively simple character who unwittingly becomes the object of lust for almost everyone else in the play.
But the true breakout star of this production is Parker Guidry in the ethereal role of Pythio. A non-binary actor themself, Guidry absolutely glories in making the most of this character. Endowed with a fine singing voice, great dance ability and a talent for bringing hilarity to the most subtle situations, Guidry is a luminous performer who, as shown by this performance, can do just about anything.
With its poetic dialogue, outlandish, cross-dressing characters, mistaken identities and unrequited love, this comic confectionary has a great deal in common with Shakespeare’s finest works.
But wait: there’s more! There’s ribald wordplay and raunchy sight gags, flowing wigs and glittering finery, flashing swords and interludes of much-loved retro music and dance that make this lighthearted musical-with-a-message the ideal warm weather wingding.
DETAILS: “Head Over Heels” is by Kokandy Production at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago through Aug. 25, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs, 20 min. For tickets and other information call (773) 975-8150 or visit Kodandy Productions.
For more shows visit TheatreInChicago.