Review: Alaska 5000 Owns Immersive Head Over Heels at Pasadena Playhouse
The Go-Go's jukebox musical takes on a new shape after a failed Broadway run in 2018.
Head Over Heels, a jukebox musical featuring the songs of the Go-Go's, is imaginative, but chaotic; energetic, but deflatingly lacking in comedy. The show had a short run on Broadway in 2018, and for this newly revised edition at the Pasadena Playhouse, co-directors Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton alter the entire theater to give the wacky musical an underground club feel, with audiences dancing on the stage throughout the performance and interacting with cast members. Although the style fits for the early career of the punk-turned-new wave band, the result is a sloppy evening. But the production does have a card up its sleeve — and it's a red queen.
Based on the 16th-century poem The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, Head Over Heels tells of a tyrannical king (Lea DeLaria) who fears an oracle's prophecy that he'll soon lose his wife (Alaska 5000), daughters (Tiffany Mann and Shanice Williams), and kingdom. Like Oedipus Rex before him, the King plans to cheat the prediction and run away with his family in tow, despite each prophecy coming true. However, the book, which was originally conceived by Avenue Q Tony-winner Jeff Whitty and later adapted by James Magruder, is confusing and not packed with the laughs necessary to keep this venture afloat. It is apparent that, though borrowed from a classic work, the plot is not the thing. That said, for a jukebox musical, the songs somehow seem mostly organic to the storyline. "Our Lips Are Sealed" speaks to the star-crossed love affairs, while "Lust to Love" seems written for a battle to the death, particularly when one participant had yearned for the other once. One of the cuter conceits is when a character's heart beats to the vamp of Go-Go lead Belinda Carlisle's solo hit "Mad About You."
Koons and Pinkleton have gathered a top-notch cast. DeLaria, a master of sultry jazz stylings, sinks her teeth into several numbers, though it's a shame the audience only gets a sampling of this extraordinary vocal talent. She plays the king as a Napoleonic mob boss, complete with a cigar bigger than her face. Williams and George Salazar are charming as the lovers forced to resort to subterfuge to keep their love alive. Mann is fiery as the primary princess who loves her servant Mopsa (Emily Skeggs, who goes after her with bravado). As two ethereal characters, Yurel Echezarreta and Freddie cast a spell over the audience with acrobatic body movements and enchanted singing, respectively.
They all must bow to the Queen, however. Alaska 5000 owns the stage every time she climbs up on it. Regal and dripping with sex, Alaska can make the most innocuous line sound hilarious. When the final scene turns tragic, Alaska drops the campiness, and treats the loss of her character's family with genuine frankness.
With scenic designer David Meyer, Koons and Pinkleton create a brand-new space out of the Playhouse, absorbing the orchestra as the stage with three platforms and a long catwalk leading to the mezzanine. The audience hovers from above and on bleachers like timid students at a high school prom. Plastic streamers and Christmas lights are festive and would be something seen in a Greenwich Village punk club, but the set looks cheap and unappealing. Based on photos of the legendary CBGB, the set could have been over-the-top, with graffiti and stickers swallowing up every blank space, but instead Meyer went more low-key. Hahnji Jangs costumes are mostly corsets over grungy clothing that continue the club-kid motif, except for a hilariously grotesque purple three-piece suit for the king, and an exquisite tight red dress covered with a red fur coat, worn by Alaska 5000, that presents a majestic silhouette and keeps all eyes on her.
With dancefloor audience members able to do the Running Man and the Worm alongside cast members, and gallery audiences able to master that elusive clap on the sixth beat of the title song's chorus, Head Over Heels gets the heart racing. It is just a shame that this production at the Playhouse doesn't look more deliberate.