“Head Over Heels,” the Broadway production that put the song catalog of the Go-Go’s to use as the basis of a narrative musical-comedy, is finally reaching the band’s hometown of Los Angeles this fall, just in time to roughly coincide with the group getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.
The show’s production at the Pasadena Playhouse, though, where it’s slated as the storied venue’s reopening attraction Nov. 9-12, will differ in many ways than what Broadway audiences saw in 2018 (or San Francisco crowds saw in its out-of-town tryout before that). For one thing, there’ll be standing room, and not in the back concourse, but in the heart of the action, where Go-Go’s fans who get the beat will be able to dance to it for the show’s trimmed-down duration.
“Who doesn’t love the Go-Go’s in L.A.?” asks Danny Feldman, the Pasadena Playhouse’s producing artistic director, altogether rhetorically. “It’s iconic. And also I think the lens of the show has changed slightly where it’s honoring them and their spirit in a different way. We’ve re-looked at the show in the lens of a dance party, essentially.”
Not that the musical’s story has been changed — it’s still a progressive take on medieval farce involving a royal family and a binary oracle — but it’s no longer quite so much a production that just happens to include scads of Go-Go’s hits and album cuts as something slightly more Go-Go’s-forward in the design and other elements.
“The script is the same — albeit shorter,” says Feldman, who notes that this “Head Over Heels” will run as one single, energized act with no intermission, lasting about an hour and a half. “There’s no additions to music or script and there’s not a new book writer attached. It’s just a slimmed-down version, but conceived with the idea of the spirit of the Go-Go’s a little more baked into the visual concept of the show.”
Whatever trims are being made to get the show down to one act, probably not many of them will come via cuts to the song score, which doesn’t just draw from Go-Go’s songs but a few Belinda Carlile hits as well. The importance of the music may be underscored by the fact that the directors and credited creators of this version are also its choreographers, Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton, who’ve been working on the show with Feldman for well over a year.
“It’s also a reconfiguring of our space,” says Feldman of the Playhouse. “That is probably one of the biggest elements to this, that the theater will not look like people have seen it before. There’s new places to sit as well as a dance-floor area. And in that way, it’s just more of an experience than passively watching a show. The show happening all around you puts the audience in the center of the story and music.”
So it’s not that big of a problem to remove fixed seating from the Playhouse floor?
“Oh, it’s a ton of problems!” laughs Feldman. “There’s nothing that’s not a lot of problems. But frankly, we have time to transform our space that in normal times we don’t. Between Holland Taylor’s show later in the season and ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ and this, we’re down three weeks between shows. And this is a project that will be a space transformation for well over a month, probably two months plus.”
He’s referring to two other transfers from Broadway, “Ann,” Taylor Holland’s one-woman show about Texas governor Ann Richards, and “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the rap improvisation show co-created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Head Over Heels” will precede them, though, as the first attraction of the Playhouse — California’s official state theater — in almost two years.
“We were originally thinking of doing this right at the beginning of the pandemic, but a lot of different stars aligned” to have “Head Over Heels” be the first show after, Feldman says. “Some of it being that the show itself is this great allegory that just is perfect for this moment,” with its themes of understanding and inclusivity, “and It’s a big celebration and a party. This was the time to do it. It’s a big, bold swing, and we’re trying to build the party that everyone earned for the last year-plus.”
The irony of “Head Over Heels” being further streamlined may not be lost on those who know the long history of the show, which originally ran close to four hours when it first premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, before originator Jeff Whitty left the show and new writers and directors came in to do what was then considered a serious condensation. The version that ended up on Broadway got a decided mix of pro and con reviews from theater critics, but enjoyed mostly enthusiastic responses from theatergoers during its just-over-six-months run.
One thing that was true of the previous productions that Feldman thinks they’ll be able to replicate in Pasadena, or even improve upon: the feeling that it sounds like an actual rock band playing the music — which is, in fact, the case — without either the rock or the plot getting lost in the mix.
“When you go see a show written by the Go-Go’s, to me you want that music front and center, right?” he says. “I’ve been listening to it nonstop now for well over a year, just because it’s infectious and joyful and uniquely L.A.”
Casting is in process and, while Feldman won’t offer too many hints, he says audiences may get a better idea of the refocused direction of this show when some of those names are announced, probably in September, when individual tickets go on sale.
Series subscribers can get them now, in conjunction with tickets for “Ann” March 23-April 24, “Freestyle Love Supreme” July 12-Aug. 7 (which will be returning to Broadway for another run in the interim) and a lesser known show, “Teenage Dick,” which played at the Public Theatre in New York shortly before the pandemic.
“‘Teenage Dick’ is the one I’m embarrassed to say out loud,” laughs Feldman. “My mom gets embarrassed every time I say it. It’s Mike Lew’s play; it’s fantastic. It’s ‘Richard III’ but set in a high school – that’s all you need to know. It’s hilarious and then it’s also really bold, and a great showcase for the actors in that piece as well — a really fun night, and provocative.”
Although he hasn’t spoken with the Go-Go’s immediately prior to this announcement, “they knew we were working on it and they’re very excited about it. They love their work being turned and twisted in this way. And hopefully for people who’ve loved the Go-Go’s always, this is a celebration of that — and there are many young folks who have never heard of the Go-Go’s, and this will be a good introduction to them.”