Encore Michigan

Ringwald audience falls ‘Head Over Heels’

Review May 16, 2019 Tanya Gazdik

FERNDALE—The Ringwald Theatre is undertaking what may be its most ambitious production in its 12-year history, and is doing it fabulously with Head Over Heels.

The actors are constantly in motion, including executing carefully choreographed dance moves, in the 2-hour and 15-minute show, which includes more than a dozen songs from music icons The Go-Go’s, including “We Got The Beat,” “Cool Jerk,” “Vacation,” “Our Lips Our Sealed” and lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s solo hits including “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “Mad About You.”

Despite the 80s hits, the musical is set in the 16th century fantasy kingdom of Acadia and the plot has nothing to do with the famous girl band.

Based on “The Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney, Head Over Heels was conceived by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. A modern musical fairy tale, the story follows the escapades of a royal family trying to save their kingdom from losing its “beat.” Several gender-positive subplots include two love stories and a hilarious love re-awakening.

The show is the first production after its Broadway debut, which was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s Top 10 Stage Picks of 2018 and recently closed in January.

The opening was delayed from May 10 to May 13 because the theater received the orchestration later than anticipated and the cast needed time to properly work with the music. Nonetheless, the opening night execution was nearly flawless, with only a few flubbed lines and one minor costume malfunction (no, it didn’t involve nudity.)

The Ringwald’s production is directed by Artistic Director Joe Bailey, with Assistant Director Steven Ross-Dybash who is also the assistant choreographer.

Music is directed by Jeremy St. Martin, who is also the keyboardist in the amazing live band that accompanies the actors and plays nearly constantly. Other band members are Anthony Lai (guitar), Reggie Williams (drums) and Michael Reeves (bass.)

There is really no “lead” actor, per se, since seven of the eight main characters share nearly equal stage time. Although Kaela Green (Pythio) doesn’t get as much stage time, she makes what she gets count, captivating the audience every time she appears with her droll wit and exceptional comedic timing.

Suzan M. Jacokes stands out as Gynecia, the mischievous wife of King Basilius, played by John DeMerell. Both actors are appropriately authoritative, setting the tone and giving context to the other characters. The two sisters, Pamela (Ashlee Spry) and Philoclea (Katy MacCutcheon) contrast each other nicely both physically and in personality. Like real sibs, they exhibit playful rivalry, but ultimately support each other when times are tough.

Jordan Gagnon is noteworthy as Mopsa, the hand servant of the ever-demanding Pamela. Despite being dressed as a maid, she has a natural elegance and confidence that makes it believable that she would end up having the fortitude to finally stand up to Pamela and flee on an overdue vacation to find herself. Christopher Ross-Dybash plays her doting father, Dametas, who ends up with some ghosts in his own closet.

Matt Wallace is Musidorus, the misunderstood shepherd who makes a play for one of the king’s daughters, only to be put in his place. He has the courage to sing badly when the part calls for it, but then gets the opportunity to show off his actually lovely voice several moments later.

The four members of the ensemble are perfectly cast as two pairs of seemingly not-quite-identical twins (Phoenix Eldridge, Tyler Goethe, Shelley Fager-Bajorek and Tess Hannah). They work diligently as the supporting characers, showing off a multitude of dance moves and vocal ranges–even playing dancing and singing sheep at one point.

The Ringwald performance space is constrained, but choreographer Molly Zalewski makes every inch of it count and the actors work up a sweat in every number.  The costume design from Cal Schwartz is nothing less than eye candy and deserves special recognition as intricate, colorful, creative and period-perfect.

All in all, if you didn’t know you were in Ferndale, it wouldn’t be hard to close your eyes and pretend you are only slightly off Broadway. The production flies by, and the audience is left humming and smiling as it exits after a perfect night at the theatre.

Week of 1/27/2020

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