Friday, September 4, 2015

Head Over Heels—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

Head Over Heels (2015): Britney Simpson. Photo: Jenny Graham
“They Got the Beat!”

This world premiere musical is written by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics by the Go-Go’s, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, choreographed by Sonya Tayeh and musical direction by Carmel Dean.  It is playing at the outdoor Elizabethan theatre in downtown Ashland through October 10th.  For more information, go to their site at www.osfashland.org or call 1-800-219-8161.

What do you get when you combine the writer of the perverse, Tony award-winning musical, Avenue Q, the retro music/songs of the 80’s, and a 500 year old contrived loved story/poem?  Be damned if I know but it doth ROCK!  Any one that can combine these seemingly contrary elements and make them look like a nostalgic walk down memory lane married to a modern, coming-of-age story, has my vote for a Broadway-bound show!  Yes, the 3-hour play needs a bit of trimming and a clearer focus but, being a world premiere means that it will be reworked a number of times before reaching the “Big Apple.”  And, make no mistake about it, this has W-I-N-N-E-R tattooed to its rainbow heart.

The musical elements have shades of Rocky Horror…, Wizard of Oz, Rent, Into the Woods, The Fantasticks, Marat-Sade, The Wiz, West Side Story, et. al.  The root story is straight out of the Shakespearean era (Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney) of the wise fools, misconstrued letters/messages, asides, disguises, arranged marriages, rhymes, and misplaced love.  Now, mirror these aspects with the brave, new world that is presently being created and you have a production looking very much like…Head Over Heels.

The story consists of a King, Basilius (Michael Sharon) and Queen, Gynecia (Miriam A. Laube) of the mythical, Arcadia.  They have two daughters, the egotistical Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), the eldest and the shier, younger daughter, Philoclea ((Tala Ashe).  Custom of the day was that the parents arranged the marriages for the maximum political/financial benefit to their kingdom and the eldest was to marry first. 

But through a string of suitors, none seem satisfactory to Pamela.  Philoclea, on the other hand, has found her true love in a young shepherd named, Musidorus (Dylan Paul), a definite taboo to the social order. But, as it comes to pass, the royals also believe in oracles or seers of the future.  This Oracle (Michele Mais) predicts four dire events that will happen and so the King decides to flee his kingdom to nearby Bohemia to outdistance the prophecies, or so he thinks.  Meanwhile the underlings at the kingdom are not idle, as the King’s right-hand man, his meek valet, Dametas (David Kelly) is doing his best to satisfy everyone’s needs; the daughters,’ sassy, lady-in-waiting, Mopsa (Britney Simpson), has her own agenda and eyes for a very unconventional relationship; Philanax, (John Tufts), the wise fool (probably the only sensible one in the kingdom), gives smart counsel, usually unheeded, and keeps the narrative of the play moving and/or changing, as needed; and the shepherd will not be thwarted in his desires for the youngest, so a drastic change in his demeanor must occur and, thereby, a revelation.

I cannot tell you more or it would spoil the plots many twists and turns.  Also, can’t reveal the songs sang in the production as they were not listed, but they were all by the musical group, the Go-Go’s from the ‘80s (akin to Abba and the evolved show from their songs, Mama Mia).  But, although complex, the play does have enough magical production numbers, extraordinary costumes, and a terrific cast to make your evening worthwhile!

Every one of the cast members (including one of the most versatile choruses I’ve seen) is exceptional and carefully chosen, as they have to be damn good singers, comedians, acrobats, dancers and, of course, actors.  In particular, all the ladies voices are amazing and the performance of Tufts, as the Fool, has a wily charm that is contagious.  The costumes by Loren Shaw are colorful, amusing, story-book in style and totally effective.  Dean as the musical maestro and Tayeh as the movement expert do an outstanding job in supporting this complicated musical structure.  Iskandar should be given kudos for assembling such a perfect combination of people to grace his vision—Bravo.

But, this being a play in progress and subject to change, I would suggest that the first act needs to be trimmed a bit.  True, it is not easy to introduce all the expository elements necessary to a play (as well as combining as least three different genres) but it could be streamlined more.  Also (without giving away the climax) that is rather weak in the story.  I would suggest that since the Fool has broken the fourth wall with the audience, he simply explain to us something like, “we really can’t let this play end on this note can we, folks?  Therefore we have the power to change sometimes what is hurtful, so why not start now…” (also shortens the play a bit) and then give the show its suitable ending.  Just an idea….


I highly recommend this play.  If you do go to see it, please tell them that Dennis sent you.



The Ashland Experience (part I)

This time we stayed at the Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites (2525 Ashland St., 855-482-8310) www.ashlandhillshotel.com as our usual haunt, the Ashland Springs in downtown Ashland, was booked full.  It has the same owners, though www.neumanhotelgroup.com (888-795-4545) and has the same delightful breakfast included in the price, including fresh fruit, pancakes, egg salad, bagels/toast, cereals, beverages, et. al.  It also includes a hot tub, swimming pool, meeting & exercise rooms, WiFi, a friendly staff and other amenities.  I recommend this place but if you are a theatre-goer, I would suggest its sister hotel downtown (mentioned above), which is right next to OSF.