Exuberant ‘Head Over Heels’ at Damascus Theatre Company is perfect for Pride

A confection of acceptance and a rocking good time.

Head Over Heels is a show that shouldn’t work — and that is part of why it works. First on Broadway in 2018, it is an incongruous combination of a Renaissance prose romance by Sir Phillip Sidney called Arcadia with 1980s pop music by the Go-Go’s. The script is brimming with all the classic tropes of Elizabethan theater — elevated language punctuated with innuendo, nobles wandering in the woods, clandestine lovers in disguise, and mistaken identity — lots of mistaken identity — all set to the irrepressible beat of the most successful all-female band ever.

In fact, more than in any Shakespearean comedy, identity — mistaken, revealed, and discovered — is the subject here. The plot hinges around a smug and hidebound King who thinks his patriarchal ways are best, a beautiful daughter with untraditional tastes in love, a shepherd who disguises himself as an Amazon to woo his beloved and finds the transformation is more than skin-deep, and a powerful nonbinary character played in the original production by the first proudly out trans actor to create a role on Broadway.

Melanie Kurstin, Mermaids Katie Loebach, KJ Jacks, and Pam Loebach in ‘Head Over Heels.’ Photo by Elli Swink.

And that makes it the perfect production for Pride Month. If you went to the Pride Parade this weekend, you will love Head Over Heels.  If you have seen rainbows sprouting everywhere and are wondering what all the fuss is about, you need to see Head Over Heels. Pride Month is about love, acceptance, and self-expression for everyone, whatever their differences may be, but especially in gender. It is not just about advocacy, although it is that. It is about joy — the sheer, giddy, celebration of being seen and accepted for who you really are.

This production by the Damascus Theatre Company captures that in abundance. Even before the show begins, the exuberance is clear in the pastel-hued classical pediment and columns around the stage and the rainbow of abstract panels that make up the simple set.

And then the lights go down and Musical Director Sam Weich’s excellent live rock band launches into “We Got the Beat” and the fun begins. Weich and Directors Mario Font and Jason Damaso (who were delightfully identifiable opening night by their paired silver and gold bespangled polo shirts) clearly cast the show with music foremost in mind. The singers need to be able to channel the Go-Go’s distinctive high, clear pop sound, and the cast achieves this in degrees from appropriate to excellent. The best were the princess Pamela (Kaitlin Harbin) and her handmaid Mopsa (Melanie Kurstin), who get to show off their pop chops in a blazing diva battle “Automatic Rainy Day.” Kurstin also brings out all the bubbly charm in “Vacation” (backed by a chorus of mermaids) while also capturing the wistfulness of lost love. Harbin is delightfully self-absorbed in her hymn to herself, “Beautiful.” In the original production, the idea of a plus-sized actress singing unashamedly of how she is the most beautiful girl in the kingdom was considered almost revolutionary, and part of the acceptance of all types of people that is core to the show. Harbin is no waif either, and she is indeed beautiful. Calling Allison Meyer “the plain princess” is a bit of a stretch, however. She, too, is lovely, and has a voice to match. She even adds some impressive operatic trills at the end of “Good Girl.”

Nicki Mazza, as Queen Gynecia (yes, that’s the original name from Sidney), certainly has no trouble keeping up with the younger cast members, while also bringing power, wisdom, and dry wit to her role. Joshua Konick, as King Basilius, also handles the vocals expertly — no mean feat, as a true rock tenor is rare, and these are songs originally sung by women. He also captures the King’s blustering character at the beginning and his true remorse at the end; at times his face, fraught with emotion, uncannily resembles the Greek mask of tragedy.

The cast performing ‘We Got the Beat’ in ‘Head Over Heels.’ Photo by Elli Swink.

Other characters, while challenged by the Go-Go’s higher notes, more than make up for it with their presence and performance. Michael Abendshein as Dametus, the King’s Viceroy, plays the classic Greek flustered servant to the hilt, complete with impressive screaming. Michael Page, as Musidorus, towers over the production and brings great physical comedy, humor, and understanding to his shepherd-turned-Amazon, with all the confusion that entails. And Emma Zonn proves a majestic Pythio, exuding power and mystery as the gender-fluid oracle.

The ensemble clearly enjoys themselves as much as the principals. The dancing, choreographed by Iván Dávila and Hayley North, is lively and makes good use of the small stage. And Weich makes sure that the sometimes-complex signature Go-Go’s harmonies come through loud and clear.

The production values of this version are simpler than the original, as befits the intimate nature of the Arts Barn. While the Broadway production set the piece in the Renaissance, when the Arcadia was written, the directors and designers (set, Bill Brown; properties, masks, set dressing, Maria Littlefield; costumes, Lee Michelle Rosenthal) remove that layer of complexity and set this production when the Arcadia was set — in Ancient Greece. The increased ease this allows is a vast improvement. The set’s movable abstract panels, rainbow to begin with and then all green when the action shifts to the forest, work well (although one might hope the crew will shave some time off the scene changes — even with a band bopping in the wings, they leave the stage dark too long). The rest of the scenery consisted mostly of rainbow suitcases, which serve as both props and seating. And the few larger set pieces, the beach scene for “Vacation” and the heavily decorated bed in “How Much More,” suited their purposes, and provided counterpoint to the simplicity of the rest of the production. Rick Swink’s colorful lighting has delightful touches, including the swirling gobos on the mermaids’ waves in “Vacation” and the head-spinning lighting whenever characters have an epiphany. Occasionally, however, some of the taller actors were hard-put to find their light in the low-ceilinged Barn, and the spots seemed focused on their midsections.

Rosenthal’s costumes deserve kudos (Greek compliment intentional). The short chitons and draped togas and gold laurel crowns are flattering, charming, and effective. The Oracles’ outfits, on the other hand, rival each other in giddy excess, from a series of towering multicolored wigs to multiple shimmering bustiers to magnificent illuminated wings. And Nikki Ottaviano’s striking ancient-meets-eighties hair design and ever-changing rainbow makeup make the perfect snazzy complement.

Michael Page, Nicki Mazza, Allison Meyer, Joshua Konick, and Michael Abendshein in ‘Head Over Heels.’ Photo by Elli Swink.

All these wildly disparate elements come together in one exuberant whole. And that is the whole point. No matter how different, over-the-top, fragmented, or multitudinous something — or someone — may be, they can revel in their complex and individual identity, and be celebrated and loved.

A trans nonbinary person very dear to me saw this show on Broadway and emerged weeping with joy because they had never felt so seen — had never encountered people like them on a Broadway stage before. And now, Damascus Theater Company has brought this confection of acceptance to community theater. People who know what Pride is really about will feel joyously validated. And even those who don’t, can Go-Go for the music and have a rocking good time.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes including intermission.

Head Over Heels plays through June 26, 2022, presented by Arts on the Green in partnership with Damascus Theatre Company performing at The Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD (Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm). Tickets ($24; $20 for students ages 15–21) are available online.

Recommended for ages 15 and up.

COVID Safety: Masks are requested by Damascus Theatre Company but not required in City of Gaithersburg facilities. Social distancing is also encouraged to the extent possible.

Head Over Heels
Songs by The Go-Go’s
Based on ‘The Arcadia’ by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and Original Book by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder

Directed by Mario Font & Jason Damaso
Musical Direction by Sam Weich
Choreographed by Ivan Davila & Hayley North
Produced by Elli Swink

CAST
Basilius, King of Arcadia – Joshua Konick
Gynecia, His Wife – Nicki Mazza
Pamela, Their Oldest Daughter – Kaitlin Harbin
Philoclea, Their Younger Daughter – Allison Meyer
Dametas, the King’s Viceroy – Michael Abendshein
Mopsa, Pamela’s Handmaiden – Melanie Kurstin
Musidorus, a Shepherd – Michael Page
Pythio, The Oracle of Delphi – Emma Zonn
Ensemble – KJ Jacks, Katie Loebach, Pam Loebach, Clara Navarro, Joe Neff, Tim Slattery

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Over the past [mumble] decades Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters and programs, and generally theatrically meddled in Maryland, Princeton, London, and Switzerland. She has made a specialty of playing old bats – no, make that “mature, empowered women” – including Mama Rose in Gypsy, the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd – when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.” She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easy-going. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies, and Woody Allen’s Mr. Big in the MP One Acts Festival. Most recently, she directed, costumed and designed the set for RLT’s She Stoops to Conquer. In real life she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.

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