As popular as jukebox musicals are, wrapping a plot around an artist’s musical catalog is kind of a strange notion. But actors in full Elizabethan garb — including codpieces — spouting Shakespearean-style blank verse, then breaking into Go-Go’s songs, backed by a rock band? Attempting to pull off a premise that absurd requires cojones big enough to fill those codpieces — and a song catalog (and cast) strong enough to give it life as an engaging theatrical romp.
Head Over Heels, the Go-Go’s musical now playing at Austin’s Zach Theatre, pulls it off with aplomb. Of course, it’s an extra kick to watch actual Go-Go Kathy Valentine, who serves as band director, step forward for an occasional bass solo as the audience bops to those irresistible beats, but the songs that carried her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would hold up even if the Austin native wasn’t playing them in this confection of a production.
As for that plot … conceived and originally written by Jeff Whitty, it was largely lifted from Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia; James Magruder adapted it into the current version with nods to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, though some elements seem reminiscent of Two Gentlemen of Verona (which also may bear Arcadia’s influence, according to Bard scholars).
Leaning into the farce, Zach artistic director David Steakley camps it up with a colorful set made almost entirely of pool inner tubes and floats. That design-on-a-budget masterstroke leads to two kitschy highlights — a giant pink flamingo float turned into a chariot to transport the play’s queen, Gynecia (a terrific Jill C. Holmes) from Arcadia to Bohemia, and the near-showstopping moment when Mopsa (Hannah Lauren Wilson), lady in waiting to royal daughter Pamela (Stephanie Jones), delivers a killer version of “Vacation,” dripping with lovelorn woe — as three tutu- and tiara-clad cast members (two in drag) recreate the famed waterskiing video amid waves of inflated lips.
By then, king Basilius (Ryan Everett Wood) has been visited by a nonbinary oracle, Pythio (scene-stealer Cecil Washington Jr., in full RuPaul vamp mode), and shepherd Musidorus (up-and-comer Colin Trudell, who also joins the band), has morphed from princess Philoclea’s forbidden suitor into an Amazon warrior who catches the king’s eye. Mopsa has already made her desire for Pamela clear, and the play rather unexpectedly turns from a scramble to save Arcadia from losing its beat into a commentary about gender, sexuality and acceptance — along with the folly of letting patriarchy and hierarchy rule. It even throws in a briefly tragic moment before the happy ending.
Yep, it’s convoluted at times. And over the top most of the time. But Valentine, guitarist Eve Monsees, drummer Kristy McInnis (aka most of Austin band the Bluebonnets) and keyboardist Emily Gimble clearly have such a blast performing the mix of Go-Go’s hits and album deep cuts with this talented cast, what’s not to like? Each time Valentine and Monsees step to center stage for a spotlight moment — their sparkle-finished silver guitars shining like Pythio’s glittery outfits — they remind audiences just how enduring those airy-yet-edgy ’80s hits are — and what an achievement it was for an all-girl band, writing and performing their own songs, to reach No. 1 with their debut album — much less spend six weeks there.
Forty years later, that feat still hasn’t been equaled. But as Head Over Heels confirms, the Go-Go’s success was no fluke; once they got the beat, they totally rocked it.
(Head Over Heels runs through Sept. 10 at the Zach Theatre. For ticket info, go to zachtheatre.org/headoverheels.)
Cover photo courtesy Nicole Shiro