ALBANY – Outdoor theater: a summer perk. And when it’s a show at Park Playhouse, now in its 34th year, it’s a perk plus.
Producing artistic director Owen Smith and his creative team are offering up “Head Over Heels,” a riotous jukebox musical (a book writer comes up with a plot that’s developed with songs from the catalog of a singer or a group, in this case, the fabulous all-female rock band the Go-Go’s).
Based on a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), the script by Jeff Whitty and James Magruder explores issues of gender identity, political power, and straight and gay relationships. And it all works, gloriously.
On the page the plot (replete with subplots) seems complicated, the way, say, some of Shakespeare’s comedies do. As performed by this superb company, the story is not difficult to follow.
An oracle, Pythio (Ellie Frances), tells King Basilius (Marc Christopher) that four unusual events will occur and bring down his kingdom of Arcadia.
His first error is not to tell Queen Gynecia (Joyel Kaleel) and his two daughters, Pamela (Luca Verner) and Philoclea (Elizabeth McGovern) the specifics of these prophecies, depending instead on the help of Dametas, his viceroy (Brandon Jones).
His second error is to imagine that he can escape his fate simply by taking the citizens of Arcadia to a new home in Bohemia.
Uh, no: no matter where you go, there you are. The journey he must take, of course, is internal, not geographical.
After episodes involving thwarted love, forbidden desire, mistaken identity, cross-dressing, old scores being settled, and numerous self-discoveries, the king and his family and all of Arcadia find peace.
The mash-up of historical periods is manifest in Zahra Jangbar’s colorful, gender-fluid costume design, with elements of classical, Elizabethan, and Goth apparel. Samuel Reilly’s set suggests an amusement park, with a roller coaster (life’s ups and downs?) at the rear. The lighting, sound, and prop work, by respectively, Alena Samoray, Tommy Rosati, and Melissa Anderson make the show pop and pulse.
From the opening “We Got the Beat” to its reprise at the end, the expert training by musical director Brian Axford and choreographer Ashley-Simone Kirchner is everywhere evident. Kudos to the six-member singing-and-dancing ensemble for their unflagging energy. The hot band? Unseen, but always heard, pounding, driving, caressing.
Director Michael LoPorto has assembled and shepherded an extraordinary cast.
Ellie Frances’ imposing Pythio hovers menacingly throughout, but Frances moves us in the denouement.
Jones is the savvy and amusing sidekick — eager to please, skeptical when necessary. But Dametas, too, has secrets and worries, which Jones alludes to with genuine pathos.
Kaleel and Christopher play the power couple with big bright voices and delightful self-dramatizing.
McGovern and Jon Maltz as Musidorus, a shepherd deemed unworthy of a king’s daughter, are sweetness itself. His “Mad About You” in Act I is touching, as is her “Good Girl.” But they grow beyond the roles assigned to them, with McGovern and Maltz handling this transformation with amusing caution and courage.
Verner scores with “Beautiful,” Pamela’s silly paean to herself, and throughout the show delights as the boastful character who will be undone to the degree that she boasts. Claire Flynn, as Mopsa, the ultimate object of Pamela’s love, and Verner are at the top of their vocal game in “Automatic Rainy Day” and “Turn to You.” Riveting!
In fact, the show is precisely about everyone’s growing beyond assigned roles. As Queen Gynecia says near the end, “We must craft a beat anew.”
Hats off to Smith and company for giving us a fresh and funny show in these contentious times about how to make a world fit for all.