Review: Selma Arts Center Go-Go’s for broke but comes up short in outdoor ‘Head Over Heels’
With its first live production since the pandemic, I’d like to tell you that Selma Arts Center stands tall with “Head Over Heels.” But this glittery musical romp ends up a little shaky on its stilettos.
The show (which continues through Sunday, July 25) features creative staging, some excellent voices, high-voltage enthusiasm and really strong sound design, which is exceedingly important when your stage is a couple of hundred feet from Highway 99. But the production is weighed down by a predictable, plodding book, an often clunky sense of humor, and a less-than-inspired relationship with the music of the Go-Go’s.
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I’m mixed on this one.
Here’s a rundown:
The storyline: In the kingdom of Arcadia, the citizenry is in danger of losing its special “beat,” which sets the country apart from all others. The king (a smooth and confident Will Bishop) travels to an oracle for consultation and learns that all sorts of bad things will happen soon — including a new king, which is certainly not what the current monarch wants to hear. I’m not sure why, but the king flees the country with his court on a sort of extended road trip to another country, Bohemia. (Strangely, there’s little sense of an unfolding journey in the staging; I’d actually forgotten about the trip part of things until reminded in the second act.) Meanwhile, the king’s two single daughters of marrying age ponder the existential question faced by all princesses: Should they pick someone as a mate because of love or to fulfill social expectations?
The beat: Yes, I brought it up above, but don’t ask me anything more about this thread of the narrative. Like much else in this thinly sketched jukebox musical, the opening conflict (losing the all-important beat) just sort of fizzles away after serving its purpose of setting up a popular Go-Go’s song. It’s as if it’s the one surviving detail from an earlier draft that was mostly scrapped. I will say, however, that the brief explanation of the beat, as detailed in additional lyrics to “We Got the Beat,” sounded slightly creepy and perhaps even fascist: “For ages the beat has ordered our lives … We heed its rhythm and follow its form … It keeps us in line and dictates the norm.” Is this code for saying that Belinda Carlye has assumed omnipotence and now runs the universe?
The music: Speaking of the lead singer of The Go-Go’s, the musical is an awkward marriage between that ‘80s band’s greatest-hits catalog and the 1593 work “The Arcadia,” a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney. The pairing of the Shakespearean-sounding language with new wave/pop rock works, sort of, but the combo can be cloying. My two favorite musical numbers are Troy Sloan’s “Mad About You” and Annelise Escobedo Lyman’s “Here You Are.” (Sloan portrays the endearing, lowly born shepherd in love with the younger princess, played by Lyman. Both are standouts.)
The singing and acting: Lyman has a lovely voice, and she brings a depth to Philoclea that elevates the character beyond Silly Young Thing. Ellie West makes a fiery (and glamorous) Queen Gynecia, and Jessica Meredith is especially good as Mopsa, a lady-in-waiting with special feelings for the older princess (a boisterous Julia Prieto). Juan Luis Guzman makes an amusing father figure as the king’s aide.
The venue: While I admire many of director Michael C. Flores’ creative touches, the outdoor venue at Selma’s Pioneer Village is a liability. The “stage” is a bare concrete surface and at ground level with the audience. This made me 1) feel sorry for the dancers’ feet; and 2) crane my neck too many times trying to see actors sitting or lying on the ground. Flores’ choreography often soars, but sometimes it seems hampered by the limitations.
The direction: Flores can bring great fluidity to his staging and keeps the action almost constant with the clever use of moving platforms and simple set pieces. (One short but important “pee scene” is a great example of Flores’ great sense of humor.) Still, Flores has to work hard to keep this tenuous narrative on track. With Shakespeare, we had to accept the idea that characters could put on a dress or pair of pants and “switch” genders without anyone being able to tell; in Sir Philip’s work, evidently, the audience has a heavier lift by being asked to believe that people can still be totally bluffed even when they’re engaging in actual sexual intercourse. The big, silhouetted scene in which all this confusion occurs is confusing and not very effectively staged; is this supposed to be slapstick comedy, sarcastic social commentary or played for real? I was never sure.
The emotional connection: This, I think, is the production’s greatest weakness. Yes, the social message of acceptance is clear, but unlike “Kinky Boots,” say, which has similar themes, the show doesn’t pack any sort of emotional wallop.
The tech credits: David Esquivel’s lighting design and Nicolette C. Andersen’s scenic design, including the festive maypole at the center of the proceedings, do a lot to transform the space into something that feels like a theater. But the real hero of the evening, I’d say, is sound engineer Adrian Oceguera, who very nicely balances the fine live band (directed by Jordan Williams) with the singers — and made me pretty much forget about the constant whoosh of cars going 80 mph right over there. Not once, in fact, did I complain about the percussion overwhelming the singers. That’s a big deal for me in a rock musical.
The gender fluidity: Now for the proudest part of the show: “Head Over Heels” featured the first non-binary character specifically written into a Broadway production. In the Selma version, Nwachachuku (who goes by one name) brings a steely flamboyance to the role of Pythio, the oracle. (Be sure to read my standalone interview with Nwachachuku and her sibling, I Adeficha, who plays her snake alter ego, here.) I applaud the groundbreaking nature of Nwachachuku’s role, although Damen Pardo’s ravishing costumes — an array of leather pants, fancy hats, sumptuous torch-singer gowns — seemed to me to much more the garb of a woman. (I suspect that I’m misgendering the character with that statement, but that was my honest reaction as an audience member; I need to expand my understanding of the intricacies of the non-binary world.) Plus, the Pythio character isn’t the only one in the show to bring up gender and sexuality issues: Same-sex attraction, cross-dressing and experimentation are major plot points throughout.
The takeaway: Selma Arts Center went big for this first show back, and while the material itself is pretty forgettable and the challenges of an outdoor venue perhaps too much to overcome, the peppy music and earnest social message make for a nice return to live theater for the company.