There’s a moment in the new production “Head Over Heels” when a humble shepherd, played by George Salazar, tries to profess his love to a princess by singing the Go-Go’s “Mad About You.” As he passionately delivers the final choruses, two actors in sheep hats pop up and sing along with him, baaing the titular lyrics to big audience laughs.
Later, Salazar slays a lion — played by an actor who roars while aggressively waving a hula hoop lined with streamers — which elicits a similar crowd reaction. And if Tiffany Mann happens to rock out so hard on “How Much More” that her paper crown falls off her head, as it does that night, onlookers cheer and applaud.
“These scrappy touches are a way to lean into the playfulness of us all being back in a room together,” says Jenny Koons, who directed, choreographed and conceived the production with Sam Pinkleton. “When you think about it, the invitation to gather with a bunch of strangers and imagine something together that’s 100% fake — that’s a beautiful ask. And it’s one that so many of us haven’t been able to answer during the pandemic.”
“Head Over Heels,” showing at the Pasadena Playhouse through Dec. 12, is a musical experiment that questions the long-accepted rules of theatermaking and theatergoing, established and upheld before the pandemic. For example, a percentage of the masked audience traverses a dance floor, because why must they all be seated? And during the show, actors remind attendees to not just sing along with them, but to do so loudly, because why must they be so quiet?
Even more so, the running time is half the length of the original musical, which combines a 16th century poem with ‘80s rock hits; notably, there aren’t any time-specific set pieces or costumes in the production, save for a couple of disco balls spinning above scaffolding and pink foil curtains.
It’s intended to tell a full story without anything extraneous. “Nothing should be more spectacular than the people in the room,” says Pinkleton. “And that’s both the audience and the performers. This is an affirmation that humans are amazing. Look what we can do together, after we’ve all been apart for so long.”
Originally written and conceived by “Avenue Q” book writer Jeff Whitty, “Head Over Heels” blends, of all things, the plot of Philip Sidney’s “Arcadia” with the songs of the Los Angeles band the Go-Go’s.
“These things got smashed together in a way that feels joyous and undeniable,” says Pinkleton of the unlikely combination, which was first staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 before a short-lived Broadway run in 2018. Among other things, it features a princess questioning her decisions while belting “Good Girl,” a dormant love rekindled during “This Old Feeling,” and forbidden romances indulged in “Our Lips Are Sealed.”
At the Playhouse, the story of a royal family in crisis unfolds over a brisk 90 minutes, “a length that we figured is standable for people on the dance floor,” says Koons. Much of the initial script’s Elizabethan iambic pentameter has been trimmed, while keeping the songs intact and leaving room for spontaneous actor-audience interactions. (“Excuse me, I hate to bother you, I know we’re in the middle of a show,” said Alaska 5000 to the attendees during the first preview. “But, do I look good?”)
Since “Head Over Heels” has what Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Danny Feldman calls “the most infectious and wonderful music that makes me want to jump out of my seat and dance,” the venue has been outfitted into a makeshift nightclub, like the Off-Broadway show “Here Lies Love” and the Playhouse production of “Pirates of Penzance.” Its proscenium stage has been filled with ADA-friendly riser seats and the raked orchestra seating has been replaced by a dance floor — a reconfiguration designed with the directors specifically for the needs of the story, as well as the audience.
“We’re looking for every possible way that a person might like to experience the show: Some people like to stand or dance or lean, some people want a traditional theater seat, some people might want to dance for some parts and sit back for others,” says Pasadena Playhouse associate producer Jenny Slattery, who oversaw the space’s four-month transformation. “We wanted to create room for every single version of spectatorship, and not value any one over the other.”
“Head Over Heels” — which also includes Lea DeLaria, Shanice Williams, Emily Skeggs, Yurel Echezarreta and Freddie in the cast — was initially slated for a future season at the Playhouse, but was boldly rescheduled as the Playhouse’s first production after the pandemic’s closures. The creators hope that audiences, who must show proof of vaccination and wear masks during the performance, feel safe enough to collectively imagine inside the theater again, and imagine what theater altogether can be.
“In-person theater was already gone once,” says Pinkleton. “In order for theater to continue, it does require some interrogation. When we say it’s for everybody, what does that really mean? I say that from a place of possibility, not negativity. I’m excited to see more theaters question what can happen when people are in a room together, telling a story.”