Say what you will about the decidedly offbeat “Head Over Heels,” but it definitely isn’t your run-of-the-mill musical revue. Where most “jukebox” shows that spotlight the greatest hits of a particular singer or band typically incorporate their popular songs around some sketchy biography of the artists involved — if they bother to include any plot at all — this one takes a moderately obscure work of antiquated 16th-century prose (Sir Philip Sidney’s “The Arcadia”) and sets it to the “new wave” tunes of the 1980s group the Go-Go’s.
As originally conceived and scripted by the aptly named Jeff Whitty (the mischievous mastermind behind “Avenue Q”), such diametrically opposing forces make for a hit-or-miss combination. In the terrific opening number of artistic director Freddie Ashley’s Actor’s Express production, accompanied by a rocking four-piece band (led by music director Alli Lingenfelter on keyboards), “Head Over Heels” starts off with a certifiable bang — introducing its cast of characters in a rollicking rendition of “We Got the Beat.”
But their kingdom of Arcadia is soon enough threatened with the loss of its own existential “beat.” The plot thickens in the convoluted tradition of those interchangeable Shakespearean romantic fantasies about mismatched lovers, mistaken identities, magic spells and the like. There are several 21st-century twists and turns along the way, too, beginning with a set of dire prophecies issued by an oracle who now identifies as “non-binary” (Trevor Perry as Pythio).
Those omens principally involve King Basilius (Kevin Harry) and Queen Gynecia (Jennifer Alice Acker), whose marriage is failing; their nubile daughters, the self-centered Pamela (Abby Holland) and the sweet-natured Philoclea (Emily Whitley); and the prospective love interests of the two princesses, both gay (Niki Badua as Pamela’s loyal handmaiden, Mopsa) and somewhat straight (Danny Crowe as Philoclea’s smitten suitor Musidorus, a lowly shepherd who later masquerades as an Amazon woman warrior named Cleophila).
How well do Go-Go’s songs fit the story? Sometimes (but not always), better than you’d think. The budding romances between the two younger couples are taboo for different reasons — the one a question of sexual orientation, the other a matter of class distinction — which provides a perfect cue for the four of them to join in on a joyous rendition of “Our Lips Are Sealed.” In another, various characters consummate their clandestine affairs as shadow figures behind a white curtain, humorously set to the tune of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
Other highlights: Whitley’s “Here You Are”; Badua’s “Vacation”; Crowe’s “Mad About You”; Harry and Acker’s “This Old Feeling”; Holland’s “Beautiful”; and Ashley’s entire 15-member ensemble delivers a rousing version of the title song. The exceedingly inventive and energetic choreography is by Kari Twyman.
MORE THINGS TO DO: MODA’s new exhibit
The show feels overlong, bogging down in patches to dispense with a lot of expository filler between songs. While a conventional staging of Sidney’s archaic “Arcadia” might have “strained for lack of a serious message,” to quote the funniest line in “Head Over Heels,” all the contemporized touches enable the musical to generally get around that particular problem — and, besides, there’s absolutely no denying that the Go-Go’s soundtrack still has the beat.
“Head Over Heels”
Through Aug. 25. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays (Aug. 17 and 24 only). $20-$50. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469. actors-express.com.
Bottom line: A real curio.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.