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Abby Holland as Pamela in Head Over Heels at Actor's Express through August 25.

Review: Express’ “Head Over Heels” not quite as shiny as expected

The best way to describe the musical Head Over Heels? A mashup of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream set to the music of the Go-Go’s. Grecian opulence and 1980s punk rock coalesce in the campiest ways in this lighthearted confection at Actor’s Express through August 25. 

The people of Arcadia are known for having the beat, but the rigidity and closed-mindedness of King Basilius (Kevin Harry) might cause them to lose it. He and Queen Gynecia (Jennifer Alice Acker) are concerned with pairing their daughters Philoclea and Pamela (Emily Whitley, Abby Holland) with worthy male suitors.

My kingdom for a corset! King Basilius (Kevin Harry, center) with the jester Dametas (Jeff McKerley) and the company of Head Over Heels (All photos by Casey Gardner)

Philoclea, however, has her eyes on the shepherd boy Musidorus (Danny Crowe), and Pamela’s heart flutters for Mopsa (Niki Badua). Pythio (Trevor Perry), the omniscient keeper of the Oracle of Adelphi, gives Basilius four scandalous prophecies. If they come to pass, the kingdom will be changed forever. 

The Actor’s Express production is full of spectacle, big voices and big ideas, which aren’t given room to flourish in its tiny performance space. Unlike last summer’s The Color Purple, which benefited from the intimacy and stripped-down nature of shows here, Head Over Heels fares far less well. It requires a lot of stage magic — things dropping from the sky, sudden appearances, a field trip to the isle of Lesbos — that are difficult to achieve in a space in which the audience can see everything. It’s a shame, too, because most of the performances are good. 

Abby Holland (left) and Emily Whitley as sisters Pamela and Philoclea. One likes girls, the other likes boys.

Badua and Holland are a joy to watch in “Our Lips Are Sealed” because of their love-you-hate-you dynamic. Jeff McKerley, as the jester Dametas, is laugh-out-loud funny as he catches the oracle’s flags with each fulfilled prophecy. Perry, in glittery blue lipstick, is perfection as the androgynous Pythio (who uses the pronoun “they”).

Undoing the confines of gender is a central theme here, and Arcadia must let people love who they love in order to keep the beat.

Head Over Heels ran on Broadway for 24 weeks in 2018–19 and was met with mixed reviews. The plot is loosely based on a 16th-century story called The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Phillip Sydney in which he addresses such topics such as sex, class, politics and cross-dressing. All of this certainly aligns with the Express’ reputation for producing contemporary LGBT-friendly work. The Broadway production was met with mixed reviews, but made a splash for having a plus-sized lead and a trans lead originate roles in the same show. (We have finally arrived in the 21st century.) 

Choreography by Kari Twyman. Costumes by April Andrew.

At Actor’s Express, Kari Twyman’s choreography is ambitious and on fire — Head Over Heels really is a dancers’ showcase. April Andrew’s costumes are the pièce de résistance. Pamela’s pink- and blue-painted skirt with hot pink corset and Pythios’ white platform thigh-high boots certainly stand out. If only they had an elaborate set on which to play and match the over-the-top nature of it all.  

Expect all of your Go-Go’s favorites, including “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation” and, of course, “Head Over Heels.” The boisterous 15-member ensemble carries them off well. For fans of Horizon Theatre’s Freaky Friday, Acker and Holland are back in “let’s-see-whose-voice-is-bigger”-style performances as mother and daughter. 

Head Over Heels is a fun night at the theater. It’s just not as much fun as it could be.