This fall, members of a live audience will walk into the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts and settle into their seats. As the lights dim and the curtains slowly rise, the whispers of the crowd will fade to silence — and the rock music will start up.
Rehearsals have just started for “Head Over Heels,” a musical comedy produced by JMU’s School of Theatre and Dance that blends a Shakespearean-era story and rock hits from the 1980s with a modern-day message of representation and finding oneself.
The production will run Nov. 3-6, with five performances in the Mainstage Theatre. Kate Arecchi, the associate director of the JMU School of Theatre and Dance, will be directing the production.
“I’m just really excited to be working with everyone back in the shops and in rehearsal rooms and to have an audience,” Arecchi said.
Arecchi has taught musical theater and directing at JMU for 16 years and said she got her start in the theater world by accompanying her mom, a musician and singer, to rehearsals from a young age. She was in dance classes at two years old; choir when she was seven; and theater when she was in middle school. She was, as she put it, “a relatively rambunctious child.”
“Head Over Heels,” a story set in the fictional kingdom of Arcadia, follows the king, queen and court on a journey in which they ineffectively strive to avoid their fate as dictated by a prophecy. While the story finds its roots in an Elizabethan-era text, Arecchi said, it’s set to a soundtrack of songs by the Go-Go’s, an all-female American punk-rock band famous in the 1980s.
Nathan Yannarell, a junior musical theatre major who’s playing the role of the king, said the cast has discussed how they can use the unique nature of the musical to reach many people.
“We’ve got this Go-Go’s music with a more public issue that is LGBTQ representation,” Yannarell said. “Then, you’ve got this older music that an older generation grew up with. Combine those two forces, and you can have different people who can not only enjoy this show but learn something from its message, and it’s not just dedicated to one group of people.”
Yannarell said he thinks every single person can see themselves in a character in “Head Over Heels.”
“Everybody is represented in some form,” Yannarell said. “I think that’s a really powerful thing.”
Crystal Haley, a senior musical theatre major and music industry minor who plays the role of the queen, said the cast talked about the need to prioritize making the relevance of the story clear to the audience.
“Although this is set in a fictional past and the music is from the ’80s, the themes are still pretty heavy and prevalent to now,” Haley said. “The text is very Shakespeare-esque, and while it’s, like, heightened language, we still wanted to make sure that the audience understood what was happening and the important things that were happening in the show.”
Originally, Arecchi said, the musical was selected by a committee of students, faculty and staff to be produced at JMU for 2020-21 as part of the Jubilee season — a national movement in which professional and educational theaters arranged to produce works by underrepresented voices. “Head Over Heels,” Arecchi said, deals with gender and LGBTQ themes.
A 2018 TheaterMania article described “Head Over Heels” as the “most inclusive production on Broadway,” saying that it “puts a lesbian love story front and center, features the first trans woman ever to originate a principal role on Broadway, and embraces and accepts queerness in all its forms in an effort to show how much better we could be if everyone lived authentically.”
Arecchi said that because of COVID-19, the Jubilee event couldn’t take place. However, when a new committee considered selections for the current season, it first looked at the selections made the previous year — particularly in light of goals for anti-racism, access, equity and inclusivity. Evaluated according to those missions, “Head Over Heels” made the cut for the 2021-22 season.
But while the musical deals with serious themes, it was also chosen because of its potential as a stage production. Arrechi called it a comedy that’s “fast-paced [with] lots of dance.”
Students, staff and others are pulling together to create the production with a cast and crew of about 40-50. Arecchi said Ashley King, a choreographer from Washington, D.C., is helping with the dance aspects of the musical, and student Sabrina Simmons is managing costume design in a way that Haley said “is making me love costumes.”
“[Simmons is] really taking the time to make sure that we feel comfortable in the costumes and that we will like them so that we can put our best foot forward when we’re performing,” Haley said. “That just makes me really excited.”
Haley said she also enjoyed doing “table reads” — reading through the script with the cast.
“You know, you get the script, and then you read it so that you’re familiar with it,” Haley said. “But then to hear everyone else bring their character alive is what really makes me so excited. There were so many funny things that I didn’t even realize were funny until I heard someone say it instead of just reading it.”
Arecchi said one highlight has been collaborating with people to create work that can be shared specifically for a live audience.
“Even last year when we did things, a lot of it was recorded and streamed ... so most people engaged with it virtually,” Arecchi said. “[It’s] great to be able to do that. But from a performer standpoint, I think it’s felt like a lot of performing by yourself to a screen.”
For now, in adherence to JMU’s current recommendations for pandemic safety, the cast of “Head Over Heels” wears masks while they rehearse and holds practices in a larger space than they ordinarily would.
According to JMU’s guidelines for public events this fall, student performers should wear masks in indoor spaces on university property when close to others but may remove them while performing on stage. Arecchi said the cast is hoping restrictions don’t change and they’ll be able to perform unmasked when the production takes place in November.
For now, students are wearing masks during classes and rehearsals, even while singing.
Life with COVID-19 has created another challenge for performers: re-adjusting to the level of energy required. Arecchi said the cast has had to build their stamina back and learn to sing in person with masks rather than over screens.
“Being back in person is so exciting, but it’s sort of like a level of stimulation that I think we’re not used to,” Arecchi said. “It’s tiring in a way that I think before [COVID-19], it wasn’t tiring in the same way.”
If restrictions remain unchanged in November, “Head Over Heels” will open in front of a live audience. Even with minor adjustments, the experience will otherwise mirror the pre-pandemic theater world at JMU.
“I think there’s something about the energy and the excitement of performers on stage together singing and dancing, and to be able to be in a room and experience that together with the cast and the other audience members,” Arecchi said. “To me, that is a real celebration of what it means to be part of a community.”
Contact Maria Copeland at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.