A Modern Twist On Musical Comedy in ‘Head Over Heels’

Unless you’ve ever considered pairing the music of eighties chart-topping girl group The Go-Gos and an epic poem written in the 1590s (The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, which also inspired many of Shakespeare’s works), the disparate elements that make up Head Over Heels may initially sound as mismatched as the star-crossed couples at its center. But while the resulting show, which enjoyed around six months on Broadway in the latter half of 2018 and is now hitting the So-Flo stage thanks to Slow Burn Theatre Company, may not quite be seamless, it is the rare feel-good musical comedy that I actually left feeling good. 

Besides the upbeat, fun-filled score and Slow Burn’s consistently high production values, one of the biggest reasons for this may be the fact that this re-imagining of the old story had enough  modern quirks to set it apart from the usual clichéd fare while still hewing closely enough to familiar tropes to make for an undemanding escapist evening. The play takes place in the distant kingdom of Arcadia, focusing on the royal family. Oldest daughter Pamela (Joline Mujica), is steadfastly refusing to choose a match despite being sought after by a litany of suitors. Meanwhile, poor shepherd Musidorus (Nate Promkul) has confessed his love for her sister, younger and nominally more plain daughter Philoclea (Kristi Rose Mills), who cannot accept his advances because she has been forbidden to marry below her station by her old-fashioned father King Basilius (Robert Koutras). 

  ‘Head Over Heels’ Nate Promkul & Company (Photo by Jojo Vitalhearn)

But everything gets shaken up when flamboyant non-binary oracle Pythio (Darius J. Manuel) warns Basilius and his trusted viceroy Dametas (Matthew W. Korinko) that a new order is needed, then offers him four unusual prophecies that will herald this transition. Basilius’s efforts to prevent what Pythio has predicted from coming to pass prompts, in true Shakespearean fashion, a transformative journey into the forest. There, Musidorus’s adoption of a feminine disguise so he can continue to pursue Philoclea ends up awakening the hidden desires of just about everyone else in the family, including not only Basilius but his powerful wife Gynecia (Sabrina Lynn Gore) and even the picky Pamela, which ends up being a catalyst for her and her loyal handmaiden Mopsa (Reanne Acasio) to reconsider their feelings for one another. 

‘Head Over Heels’ Reanne Acasio (Photo by Jojo Vitalhearn)

Refreshingly, the queer attractions and couplings that result from this set-up serve to add spice to the story without dominating it or being treated unduly heavily instead of as just more fodder for a wild comedic romp. Partially following the precedent set by the original Broadway production, Slow Burn’s iteration of Head Over Heels also exercises a cheerful ignorance of both biology and convention in its casting of actors of different races as family members, a male-presenting actor as a non-binary character who is implied to have been assigned female at birth, and an actress who may not be thought of as meeting traditional beauty standards as a character who is admired for her appearance. Far from being distracting, these little twists only heighten the playful and irreverent vibe of the script as a whole, which makes time for plenty of fourth-wall breaking meta-jokes throughout. Though the action is a bit slow to get started, things heat up plot-wise once the adventurers make it to the forest and mostly keep moving relatively smoothly from there. 

‘Head Over Heels’ Nate Promkul & Kristi Rose Mills (Photo by Jojo Vitalhearn)

While the show also does fall victim to the near-inevitable jukebox musical trap of songs that feel shoehorned into the narrative, those songs are also mostly entertaining and peppy enough not to feel as if they’re weighing down the story regardless, and provide plenty of opportunities for the cast to showcase their considerable vocal skills. Almost all of the principal actors get a chance to shine in at least one memorable solo section as well as to exercise their considerable comedic chops over the course of play’s madcap plot, though Promkul’s portrayal of the charmingly sincere Musidorus and Manuel’s of the confident diva Pythio were particular highlights.The play’s many musical numbers, superfluous though some might be, also provide the opportunity for plenty of amusing bits of theatricality in the choreography, costuming, and staging. For instance, you’d be hard-pressed not to be amused by the makeshift “water” that Mopsa sails on when she goes on an impromptu “Vacation”, the sheepish costumes donned by the ensemble during one iteration of “Mad About You”, and the shadowy scrims that allow for some very suggestive dancing during “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, just a few of the show’s many visual high points. 


‘Head Over Heels’ Company (Photo by Jojo Vitalhearn)

Though one moment in Act 2 briefly seems to suggest that matters are finally moving in a darker direction, by that point in the story the light-hearted mood had been so well-established that it in no way surprised me when every loose end was instead neatly tied up before curtain call. As long as you don’t take the earnestly silly stylings of Head Over Heels any more seriously than the show takes itself, you’ll probably have a good time if you can make it to Slow Burn’s excellent iteration before it closes up shop this July 26!

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