Monumental Theatre Company’s ‘Head Over Heels’ is a toe-tapping celebration of life, love, and self

Based on a 16th-century romance and with music from The Go-Go's, 'Head Over Heels' is a queer and perfect combination of Shakespearean verse and jukebox musical.

After receiving a foreboding prophecy of loss and destruction, the King of Arcadia is determined to outwit the gods and save his kingdom’s “beat.” To do so, he takes his queen, two daughters, and faithful household on a journey that turns out to be much more about the path they travel than the destination they seek. With book by James Magruder, adaptation by Jeff Whitty, and a plot based on Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Head Over Heels at Monumental Theatre Company is a queer and perfect combination of Shakespearean verse and jukebox musical. Featuring the Go-Go’s hits “We Got The Beat,” “Mad About You,” “Vacation,” and “Our Lips are Sealed,” Head Over Heels is a toe-tapping celebration of life, love, and self.

Candice Shedd-Thompson (Gynecia), Rachel Barlaam (Pamela), Greg Michael Atkin (Dametas), Brice Guerriere (Basilius), Lauren Farnell (Philoclea), and Adelina Mitchell (Mopsa) in 'Head Over Heels' by Monumental Theatre Company. Photo by Rj Pavel.
Candice Shedd-Thompson (Gynecia), Rachel Barlaam (Pamela), Greg Michael Atkin (Dametas), Brice Guerriere (Basilius), Lauren Farnell (Philoclea), and Adelina Mitchell (Mopsa) in ‘Head Over Heels’ by Monumental Theatre Company. Photo by Rj Pavel.

Set in an intimate theater-in-the-round, this production was so much of a nonstop whirl of mirth and talent that it is almost impossible to know where to begin. Perhaps with the self-assured, though often mistaken, King Basilius played by Brice Guerriere. With rocker’s pipes and tresses, Guerriere possessed the jerky awkwardness of a middle-aged king, both righteously confident in and yet deeply insecure of his position within the hearts of his family and subjects. His relationship with his wife was quick proof of this insecurity as —once wooed with fiery romance — she is now dismissed.

Played by the regal Candice Shedd-Thompson, Queen Gynecia made it her mission to uncover the truth behind Basilius’ fictitious quest. Exposing more than she set out to, Shedd-Thompson’s Gynecia was an alluring balance of dignified poise and purposed resolution with playfully powerful vocals, particularly in “This Old Feeling” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” shared with Basilius.

Their eldest daughter, Princess Pamela, played by Rachel Barlaam, was cursed with too much beauty and not enough humility. A diva in demeanor and comedic timing as well as vocal talent, Barlaam laid waste to her ’80s rock ballads, “Beautiful” and “How Much More.” Barlaam’s vocals were matched only by her Lady-in-Waiting, Mopsa, played by Adelina Mitchell. Their two voices combined made me hold my breath for fear of missing a single, glorious note in “Automatic Rainy Day” and “Turn to You.” The vocal fireworks that resulted from these two powerhouse talents were exemplary of a glam rock/pop fusion and simply amazing.

Powerful in a quiet, faithful way was the kingdom’s other princess, Philoclea, played by Lauren Farnell. Plagued with love for a lowly shepherd, she might have been written to exist in the shadows of her sister’s beauty and talent but Farnell proved to be equal in both gifts, as best shown in her featured song, “Good Girl.” Her persevering love, Musidorus, played by John Sygar, was another standout performance for me. Whether as Musidorus or as the newly discovered Cleophila, he seemed both always uncomfortable in the situations in which he found himself and yet entirely at home in his skin. That newly discovered confidence was emblematic of the production’s underlying themes of acceptance and self.

Bouncing back and forth between these three pairs (and the combinations therein) was the befuddled Dametas, played by Greg Atkin. Ever steadfast in his duties, his perpetual and varying degrees of exasperation were a delight that ran throughout the entire production. Not a man for many songs, he enriched each line with such comedic flair that just one look from Atkin could send the audience into stitches. Contrastingly, the calm, cool, and all-knowing Pythio, played by Topher Williams, was a noble presence every time she took the stage. In handing down the fateful prophesy to King Basilius during “Vision of Nowness,”  Williams’ incredible voice and majestic stage presence glided like silk across the corners of the room, aided by the ensemble members Savina Barini, Ricardo Blagrove, Morgan Kelleher, and Cam Shegogue.

John Sygar (Musidorus) and Lauren Farnell (Philoclea) in 'Head Over Heels' by Monumental Theatre Company. Photo by Rj Pavel.
John Sygar (Musidorus) and Lauren Farnell (Philoclea) in ‘Head Over Heels’ by Monumental Theatre Company. Photo by Rj Pavel.

For the Creative Team’s part, each element was immersive. Direction by Jimmy Mavrikes made clever use of the theater-in-the-round space and infused fluidity in every element of the production. Musical direction by Marika Countouris expertly tailored the cast’s considerable talents into a perfect fit for the music and space. Choreography by Ahmad Maaty was a constant and rejuvenating stream of energy that you couldn’t help but smile at. And the set (James V. Raymond), costuming (Jenn Pinkos), sound (Tosin Olufolabi), and lighting (Venus Gulbranson) struck the perfect balance between whimsy, rock, Shakespeare, and ancient Greek. Meanwhile, the Orchestra (Marika Countouris, Connor Holdrige, Alec Green, Jonas Creason, Marty Risemberg, and Gabe Earle) kept the party hopping with incredible flair and sass.

Centering on discovering the power within and learning to love who you are, Head Over Heels at Monumental Theatre Company is a captivating adventure of expression, acceptance, and change to which you can bring your whole, true self. An empowering tribute to the fluid journey we are all on of self-discovery, this production has truly “got the beat.”

Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Head Over Heels, presented by Monumental Theatre Company, runs through March 23, 2020, at the Ainslie Arts Center on the campus of Episcopal High School, 3900 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, VA. Purchase tickets online.

[Related: Read David Siegel’s interview with Rachel Barlaam and Adelina Mitchell here.]

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Ever since she can remember, Em Skow has been transfixed by the performing arts and sought to submerse herself in them in any way she could. She started singing in choirs in elementary school, added theater productions in middle and high school, picked up an English Creative Writing Bachelor's degree and a photography passion in college, and, now - a good handful of years later - is keeping each as a part of her life here in D.C. By day, she's a Communications Professional. By night, she's a PR and Corporate Communications masters student at Georgetown University; Soprano & Communications Manager of the 18th Street Singers; and Theater Reviewer for the one and only DC Theater Arts. All-in-all, a self-professed theater, choral, arts nerd, and she likes it that way.

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