By Lynn Venhaus
Thomas Edison said: “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”
That ode to hard work is evident in New Line Theatre’s latest production of “Head Over Heels,” a most unusual romantic comedy-fantasy musical involving high-octane dance numbers with upbeat songs from the ‘80s new wave/pop rock all-female group The Go-Go’s — and a fairy tale storyline from the 16th century.
This creative burst of a show seems fresh – and a refreshing change of pace. How can you not want to sing along with “Vacation,” “Our Lips Our Sealed” and “We Got the Beat”?
With such a catchy hit song catalogue included, there is an exuberance that’s comparable to those early days of the U.S. New Wave when Belinda Carlisle (lead vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar and vocals), Charlotte Caffey (lead guitar, keyboards, and vocals), Gina Schock (drums) and Kathy Valentine (base and vocals) were considered part America’s sweetheart, part rebel girls.
Those girly Go-Go’s became the first multi-platinum-selling all-female band to play their own instruments and write their own songs. The feisty five were tailor-made for the music-video television revolution as they rose to fame after their 1981 debut album, “Beauty and the Beat,” was released.
Did I mention infectious hooks? We are reeled in with abandon. And two songs are included from Carlisle’s solo career – “Mad About You” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
The cast is this unified blast of energy – a big bang of emotion as they cavort, smile, and lay on the charm. Oh, they got the beat, all right.
Because their run was unfortunately cut short in 2020, and the company has returned to live theater for a 30th season, there is a renewed spark and a collective celebratory vibe. They all look so happy to be on stage.
I first saw their regional premiere in the Before Times, right before a global coronavirus pandemic was declared and St. Louis went into lockdown. A lot has changed since then – death rate, highly transmissible variants, and political debates on public health safety vs personal rights – but – hey, The Go-Go’s were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame!
The music and movements are like a tonic here – after all the drama and reality of the past couple of years, it’s such a relief to see people doing what they are passionate about, and our second chance to make a connection that is unique to the art form.
And this is a show ultimately about connection – how we need it, how we screw it up, and what is so satisfying about it.
For more than 700 days, we have forged ahead — through dark stages, no shows going on, intermittent stays at home, getting vaccines and boosters, adapting to protocols like wear a mask and show your vaccine card at the door when theater resumed — or not, given the surges and number of cases. Some of us tested positive, others luckier in avoiding it.
We are forever changed, and art will reflect that someday. But for now, it’s time to dance!
In “Head Over Heels,” the source material may be hundreds of years old, but it is far from creaky, if you look at it as young folks revolting against parental authority.
“The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney is the novel it’s based on, which proved fertile source material for certain plot elements of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” “Hamlet” and “A Winter’s Tale.” There are various updates and editions.
What a combo plate this story is! It blends irony with old-timey morals – chew on that – and touches on gender politics while reinforcing that there are no rules in love and romance.
In 1580, a royal family wants to save their kingdom from extinction, but their journey is a rocky one. They discover “all you need is love,’ but in surprising – and sometimes shocking – ways.
And that changing with the times and letting go of traditions is a clarion call. During their escapades, they find out the key to their realm’s survival lies within each of their own hearts but is not always in the way they expect.
The humor attempts – wordplay, double entendre, nimble timing — helps the flowery language of a bygone era go down, so dispel any notion that this is stuffy.
The New Liners are back, baby! And with only two changes from the original cast –Colin Dowd, as the dutiful but very nervous servant Dametas, and Dawn Schmid, as spunky Mopsa, make those parts their own. They play a father-daughter duo – he’s the well-meaning dad who has tried to shelter his little girl from the world, while she’s ready to plant her flag.
The rambunctious ensemble includes comic and frisky turns by Grace Langford as Princess Pamela and Melissa Felps as her sister Princess Philoclea, with Clayton Humburg exceptionally good as her major crush Musidorus, a lowly shepherd boy (but also charming in disguise – but let’s not ruin the plot).
The three main girls, as it turns out, are as much firebrands as the rock ‘n rollers who blazed trails for other females. Hmmm…maybe this match isn’t as unlikely as it sounds.
A serious Zachary Allen Farmer plays the princesses’ controlling father, King Basilius, while Carrie Priesmeyer plays his roving-eye wife Queen Gynecia with an insouciant shrug. Girls will be girls, after all.
Graceful Tiélere Cheatem is the grand and mysterious Oracle Pythio, working his fabulous shimmery wardrobe and commanding the stage like he always does.
Rounding out the cast is ball of fire Kevin Corpuz along with the oh-so-lively ensemble — Evan Fornachon, Chris Kernan, Chris Moore, Maggie Nold, Michelle Sauer, Alyssa Wolf, and Sara Rae Womack keeping a full-steam-ahead pace that’s like one big spring break party.
Womack and Sauer teamed on the choreography that keeps everyone in motion for 11 dance numbers. Yes, eleven. That’s a lot for a show!
Mounting this production again means some new folks on the creative team – visionary director Scott Miller returns as the solo credit, then subbed as the music director and accompanist the first weekend while original music director Nic Valdez, St. Louis Theater Circle nominee for his work in 2020, returned for the final two weeks of the run.
The band, as always, is stellar – Adam Rugo on lead guitar, Jaylen Edwards on guitar, Clancy Newell on percussion and John Gerdes on bass.
A few changes to some costumes – superbly crafted by Sarah Porter and Courtney Gibson – but still the same kicky bright-color garments fashioned after medieval minstrels while giving the royal family a more regal appearance with lush textures and deep hues, gem tones.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert created an imaginative but simple set, so that people could romp around a fairy tale kingdom set in ancient Greece. He elevated natural elements for different height levels that helped with the blocking – such as rocks and forested nooks. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting design expressed distinct moods between day and night.
How did this show ever come about? It took some bold veterans to enliven the musical comedy genre with some real cheeky moves. Jeff Whitty conceived it and wrote the book, which was adapted by James Magruder into a laugh-out-loud love story. Broadway composer Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) took care of the band and vocal arrangements.
“Head Over Heels” originally premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then opened on Broadway in 2018. The show was nominated for Best Musical by the Drama League and the Outer Critics Circle Awards.
And just in case you need a reminder, it contains adult content.
While New Line Theatre often offers a fresh take on musicals in need of a makeover or neglected ones who need resurrection, they have grabbed recent works who could benefit from the company’s spotlight, such as “Be More Chill” in 2019 and this cultish gem.
The night belongs to lovers, nonconformists and an ebullient cast who revel in the romance and adventure – and the twists! (And they twist!). Female independence never looked so bold, brave, boisterous, or beautiful.
New Line Theatre presents “Head Over Heels” March 3 through March 26 (Thursday through Saturday) at 8 p.m. Performances take place at the Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, three blocks east of Grand, in Grand Arts Center. For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com or call Metrotix at 314-534-1111 for tickets.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.