Review: Head Over Heels by Zach Theatre
by Brian Paul Scipione
The Go-Go's got their start in Los Angeles, California in 1978 . While there have been all female rock groups before and after, they are one of the most successful of all time. Their debut album Beauty and the Beat reached number one on the billboard chart, stayed there for six weeks, and sold more than two million copies. Their achievements continued to skyrocket and their initial break up in 1985 didn’t stop the members from going on to successful solo careers. They reunited for a new album in 2001 and a Broadway musical in 2018 and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.
Belinda Carlisle declared that the group had disbanded in 2023, but as Sonny Bono would say, the beat goes on.
The idea of a musical based on a popular band’s discography is not a new one. Two of my favorites are Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Lies & Legends: The Musical Stories of Harry Chapin. The story-songs of these two artists were especially fitting for stage adaptions, The work of Bob Dylan, awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, would be even richer.
The term jukebox musical is a blanket term for a production using popular songs by well-known artists. Jukebox musicals may use the work of one artist or many, usually from the same genre. If a single artist, the work is often crafted to tell that artist's life story. Less frequently, the work uses the music as a soundtrack for an altogether different story. Heads Over Heels falls into this last category.
The plot is based on Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century pastorale The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, the tale of a king who tries to avoid three ominous prophecies by fleeing to the countryside. Writers Jeff Whitty and James Magruder upped the stakes and loosely linked it to the Go Gos by adding that if the prophecies come true the kingdom will lose its "beat.” The beat seems to be a force-like power tied to the kingdom’s prosperity and the people’s happiness.
The audience is more likely to see strong parallels to Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It, much better known than Sidney’s fable. A note: Jeff Whitty conceived and wrote the script but left the project after a dispute with director Michael Mayer. James Magruder did a rewrite. The dispute is worthy of an entire article on its own. Suffice it to say that this rocking play's rocky origins date back to 2015.
Zach Theatre keeps serving up hits, and this is another one. The Go Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine leads the all-female band, and she's clearly as cool now as she was in the eighties. True rock royalty, she doesn’t preen and pout like Jagger but moves with a serpentine strut. It draws every eye in the room to her coy, knowing grin and dexterous bass playing. With direction by Dave Steakley and cast musical direction by Allen Robertson, Zach relies on its heavy hitters to keep this production on par with the quality expected of a major regional theatre.
The crowd of children and adults roared in approval as Go Go’s hits were unleashed one after another. All delighted in the summer vacation/public beach theme and setting. It was no surprise that all of the band’s biggest hits were showcased, including “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” This is what the public came for—all the pulse-pounding energy of a rock concert, a hundred times better than going to a nostalgia concert and wading through a sea of lesser known songs just to hear three or four famous favorites. Zach proves yet again it knows how to throw a party. Unlike its beloved annual production A Christmas Carol, this one's especially welcome as a relief from this gruesome summer heat (a beach party indoors? Yes, please!).
A Christmas Carol carries a familiar moral message. Not so, Head over Heels. No sermon here, and even the flimsy plot is obscured by onstage hijinks and bright musical numbers. Most of the choices feel arbitrary, and the characters seem to have no more control over their fates the principals in a Greek tragedy. Gender issues are at the center, but there's no effort to tie them into the country’s current political situation or local Austin culture. The production remains apolitical, family-oriented, and safe as houses. That's an enormous missed opportunity.
There is of course nothing wrong with that. It's a family show and the vast majority of the audience wants no more than that. I mention it only because of the contrast. The Austin theater scene has traditionally been both daring and cutting edge, but perhaps that edge has been dulled by the abrupt decline of theatre troupes and productions made inevitable by the pandemic.
August 09 - September 10, 2023
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704
August 9 - September 10, 2023
Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm and some Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm.
Tickets: Start at $25 available at ZACH’s Box Office – 512-476-0541 x1, zachtheatre.org
Special Events in celebration of Head Over Heels:
- Pride Night on Thursday, August 10, 2023
- Champagne Opening Night – Saturday, August 12, 2023 at 7:30pm
- ASL/Open Captioned performance on Wednesday, September 6, 2023