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Timely musical comedy opens at the New Phoenix Theatre April 7th

Head over Heels opens at New Phoenix Theatre on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers on April 7th. The musical production is a resounding rejection of the divisiveness of the Don’t Say Gay Bill that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law on March 28th - as Director Scott Carpenter makes abundantly clear:

“When we picked this show the political climate was not quite this rancid regarding the LBGTQ community and transgender. Right now, with the Governor signing the bill into law, the Don’t Say Gay Bill, I think it’s extremely important that we’re doing this show right now. Not only are we saying gay, we’re singing it out loud to everybody with the music of the Go-Gos.”

"Head over Heels" is not a biopic about the L.A. all-girl band that reigned as pop rocks’s high priestesses for more than three decades (and recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Instead, Jeff Whitty and James Magruder used the Go-Gos’ melodies and lyrics to tell a story, much like what Robert Cacioppo and Victoria Casella did in in Night and Day by weaving together Cole Porter classics to tell the story of two couples who fall out of and then back in love again, and as Joe DiPietro did in "All Shook Up" by stitching together the music of Elvis to tell a story inspired by Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night."

In the case of "Head over Heels," the story was inspired by a 16th century romance (Philip Sidney’s "The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia") that takes places at an indeterminate time in a fictional kingdom called Arcadia.

Julie Bearden Carver, who provides the musical direction for the show, provides insight on how Whitty and Magruder used the Go-Gos songbook to retell this 500+-year-old story.

“Knowing they were going to use the music of the Go-Gos, they had to adapt the story more to the existing music but it works hand in hand, and this cast, especially, they’re not parking and barking, they’re not just standing there singing a concert of Go-Gos music, they’re paying attention to the words and they’re emoting the lyric, even though it’s a lyric that we’ve heard for two or three decades, they are bringing new amplification to the lyric.”

Arcadia is ruled by a king named Basilius. As the musical opens, he receives a warning from the Oracle of Delphi that if certain events transpire, he will be replaced by a new king. So as has happened throughout history as well as in modern times, Basilius resorts to misinformation, deception, repression and murder in an effort to retain and expand his power.

But the way his people interact and relate to one another is changing, and those changes are already transforming Arcadia’s social and cultural institutions and mores. And at the heart of these events is Basilius’ own daughter, Pamela, a princess who is being pressured to find and accept a suitor. Nikki Hagel plays the part, and describes Pamela’s character arc.

“She definitely goes through a journey of emotions from being disgusted about finding a suitor to being upset that other people are living their truths to finally just accepting who she is and embracing this newfound love that she has.”

The recipient of this newfound love is Pamela’s handmaiden, Mopsa, played by upbeat and effervescent non-binary actor Carling Witt.

“Pamela’s character is dead set on ‘these are my duties as a princess,’ ‘this is what I’m supposed to be,’ ‘this is what people expect of me,’ and the way Nikki navigates it is beautiful, like realizing who you are and everything, that’s kind of the biggest obstacle. Like I know I love you. I know that I’m feeling this way. I need you to meet me halfway, and I feel like that’s very real for a lot of people that are going on a similar journey.”

But you won’t hear labels like gay, lesbian, queer or non-binary during the show. Those terms did not exist in Arcadia. But they do exist in present-day America, and there’s a recognition by cast and crew of the importance of providing the LGBTQ community with representation on stage and in film.

Carling Witt sees this as one of the show’s main thrusts.

“If I were growing up in this time of ‘don’t say gay’ when I was in school I may have never been allowed to find myself the way that I did. When I was figuring out who I was, I was so unhappy and I think being able to be a place where we can be a safe haven for people and where we can get out the message hey, it is okay for you to be exactly who you are and nobody else, and to be unapologetically yourself. That’s all we want to get out, and I think we’re going to do a damn good job of it.”

Nikki Hagel wholeheartedly agrees.

“We’re going back in time and I feel this is the perfect time to show people that all love matters and all representation needs to be here. I feel very strongly about this show and I think everyone in this cast does too. This show is very important right now.”

Thanks to the music of the Go-Gos and Whitty and Magruder’s clever adaptation, Head Over Heels delivers these and other metaphors and similes an upbeat, high octane harmony, as Carling Witt describes.

“It’s probably one of the most vocally demanding shows I’ve ever been a part of as well as, um, choreographically demanding, and we have this great ensemble [Emile Baartman, Mica Hanson, Aimee Naughton, Samantha Pudlin and Cassy Terwilliger] that works so hard. They’re in every scene. They sing. They dance. They carry this musical through the entire thing. Like we’re ‘principals’ but like, it’s them. It’s the ensemble. They’re killing it out there. It’s super high energy. I think the music lends itself to welcoming the audience into the world of Arcadia and having them be a part of this experience like they’re going through it with us, which is really nice.”

Director Scott Carpenter puts it this way:

“When people come they’re going to hear some fantastic voices. They’re going to see some fantastic choreography. They’re going to have a great time seeing the show and they’re going to fall in love with this cast as much as I have.”

Carpenter also wants patrons to know that New Phoenix Theatre is a safe and welcome space in which to enjoy the show.

“People can come and know they’re in a safe place when they come here and enjoy themselves and be true to themselves no matter how they identify. Everyone can be who they are here, in the show, on stage and off stage.”

No question, audiences will be wowed with what Carpenter, Julie Bearden Carver and choreographer Robin Dawn have achieved with the show. In fact, bring your dancing shoes as Head Over Heels promises to be a celebration of diversity set to the music of the Go-Gos.

Or as Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wieden, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine sing, “Everybody get on your feet, we know you can dance to the beat. Yeah, we got the beat.”

"Head Over Heels" plays at New Phoenix Theatre April 7th through May 1st.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

This Spotlight on the Arts feature is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.