By Ian Rigg
There are likely some who’d doubt that a farcical jukebox musical of Go-Gos tunes would be a progressive work pushing Broadway representation forward. Pay no mind to what they say (it doesn’t matter anyway!) Kokandy Productions’ explicitly queer, effortlessly entertaining take on Head Over Heels has got the beat.
In a silly but significant story scored by Belinda Carlisle’s greatest hits, an ancient kingdom called Arcadia has been held under the thrall of The Beat for centuries, keeping to strict traditions and social roles to enforce its rhythm. But when an enigmatic oracle foretells that they will lose the Beat and the kingdom will fall to chaos, an idiot king tries to stymie prophecy, forbidden lovers meet in secret, and destiny and desire duel. Delivered in classical meter, heightened language, and 80s radio jams, Head Over Heels delivers laughs as it unveils cautionary tales about the perils of patriarchal tradition and ascribing to self-fulfilling prophecies, and a warm appeal that love is what individuals feel, not what society dictates.
As the farce unfolds, the characters learn to leave behind the archaic tunes of old, and embrace different voices to make a much better song.
Conducting it all are directors Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson. By channeling a classical world through a queer lens, they keep the comedic arrows firing and the show’s aim true. And they boldly do their own thing with a show that only recently ran on Broadway, brilliantly adding intermittent vignettes of queer love, polyamory, and more, all of them sweet and sincere reinforcements of the show’s themes.
Their team takes this to heart, too. Chris Roton’s simple but dynamic set allows for literal and figurative multi-level drama, perfectly lit by evocative lighting designer G. “Max” Maxin IV.
Intimacy director Sarah Scanlon also channels those levels, keeping everything safe, and scintillatingly respectful.
Incredible costume designer Uriel Gomez melds 80s kink, medieval regalia, and the thrill of summer fabrics into a series of sex-positive outfits – there should be nothing but glowing raves for the convertible dress of the pithy prophet Pithio, the finale’s can’t-miss showstopper.
Breon Arzell remains one of Chicago’s best choreographers, and his alternatively percussive and fluid movements are what set this show apart. It’s a testament to his unique vision that it’s impossible to imagine the movement looking any different.
The spectacle is only bolstered by Kyra Leigh, who keeps harmonies and cutoffs tight, vocals powerful, and inspires the actors to reach for the insane notes they hit. Thanks to this creative team, you’ll never hear The Go-Gos the same way again.
Carrying out the killer choreo and radical riffs is a cast packed with vocal powerhouses, rising stars, and diverse gender identities.
Deanalís Resto makes waves as the pining punk handmaiden Mopsa. They are a revelation to the Chicago stage, with a wonderfully expressive face and the soaring vocal chops to match.
Jeremiah Alsop shines as the moonstruck shepherd turned romantic hero Musidorus. With a soaring, earnest voice and killer physical comedy chops, he plays the part perfectly. It’s a delight to watch him masquerade as an Amazon warrior to be closer to his beloved (the old tropes transcend their typical usage), and unlock a power and aspect within himself he never knew was there.
Just wait ‘til you hear Caitlyn Cerza sing. As the initially downtrodden princess Philoclea, she has the sublime pipes to bring this patriarchy crashing down.
Bridget Adams-King, coming off the deserved acclaim of her turn in Haymarket, is ever a joy. As a (probably rightfully) narcissistic princess discovering that love was right next to her all along – and it sure ain’t no lame prince – she balances phenomenal vocal power and control with a perfectly calibrated deadpan delivery as the show’s comedic backbone.
Liz Norton is a queen in every sense of the word. With a singular voice and a most regal command of language, she by all rights should be a living legend.
Frankie Leo Bennet, who was sadly born too late for a great career as an 80s pop star, does a bang-up job as the buffoon king who gradually learns regret and humility.
Shane Roberie, a laugh riot, truly commits to the oafish but loyal regent Dametas, himself learning to overcome past sins and embrace new changes.
But it has been foretold that Parker Guidry walks away with the show, and they sure do command every scene they’re in. Proving a powerhouse Pithio, with hypnotically serpentine movement, avian mystique and viper-like execution of language, the endlessly charismatic performer makes it easy to see why a character becomes “mad about them” by the show’s heartfelt finale.
It’s rare that a comedic romp can have something so profound to say, and it’s telling that this crew of artists sticks the landing and has such a fun time doing it. Kokandy’s Head Over Heels is a breezy summer treat, and a reminder that when we embrace all identities with love as our truest compass, we’ll make heaven a place on earth. And ooo baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Kokandy Productions presents “Head Over Heels” through Sept. 8 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. For tickets and more information click here.