Head Over Heels is a mash-up that sounds weird and unworkable: It’s a jukebox musical using 18 songs by the 1980s all-female L.A. punk band The Go-Go’s. But it’s also a loose adaptation of Arcadia, a 1580’s work of literature by Philip Sidney, a contemporary of Shakespeare.
Dressed in Elizabethan doublets, ruffs, crowns and long gowns, the performers speak in iambic pentameter when they’re not singing lyrics like “We got the beat/we got the beat/yeah we got it” and dancing the “Cool Jerk.”
This is silly, but the show doesn’t pretend otherwise, and, given the right mood, one can revel in its silliness. Head Over Heels is happy to be a musical comedy that winks at us, while under Michael Mayer’s fast-paced direction a ton of talented performers energetically deliver the songs, the shtick and the story in 19 colorful and sometimes off-color scenes.
But the musical also attempts something beneath its busy surface: Supported by The Go-Go’s feminist sensibility and gay following, and inspired by Sir Philip’s penchant for a comic plot revolving around cross-dressing disguises and mistaken identities, the show fashions something of a political message for these times: Head Over Heels is a witty endorsement of love and acceptance in all its contemporary forms, especially gay/queer/gender-fluid.
Its messages are reinforced by some of its casting decisions. The most evident (but not the only) example: Peppermint, the one-named veteran of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is billed as the first trans woman to create a role on Broadway.
Peppermint portrays Pythio, the newly appointed Oracle at Delphi, a character whose sexual identity confuses Basilius, the king of the ancient Greek city of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier), whom the Oracle has summoned.
Basilius: Art thou man or woman?
Pythio: How is gender germane to the discussion?
Basilius: Things need to be one thing or another.
Pythio: My qualities trans-cend your rude opinion! Pythio is a non-binary plural.
That issue settled, Pythio delivers to the king four prophecies that set the plot(s) of Head Over Heels in motion.
The first three sound like riddles:
- “Thy younger daughter brings a liar to bed:
He thou shalt forbid; she he’ll then assume!”
Alexandra Socha portrays the king’s younger daughter Philoclea , who has been fast friends since childhood with the shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand), but their friendship has turned heated and lusty, full of double-entendres. The king forbids their association, because the shepherd is of lowly station. Musidorus disguises himself as an Amazon warrior, complete with blonde wig and pointy metal bra. Comic complications ensue (he becomes, for one, the object of affection for both the king and the queen), which Durand handles with great dexterity and hilarity, making his one of the stand-out performances in the cast.
- “Thy elder daughter shall consent to wed;
She’ll consummate her love — but with no groom!”
Bonnie Milligan, making an impressive Broadway debut, is the vain, beautiful older daughter, Pamela, who has been resisting suitors for five years; their courtship is represented by a quartet of sexy shirtless chorus boys during the song “Beautiful.”
- “Thou with thy wife adult’ry shall commit.”
Rachel York portrays the queen, Gynecia, in fine voice and regal bearing.
The fourth prophecy is more straightforward:
- “You will meet and make way for a better King.”
Each of these stories play out in variously convoluted and unexpected ways, leading to happy endings that are both surprising and pointed. The logic along the way would not withstand much scrutiny, but the show’s innate silliness – along with the flamboyant distractions of its design team — more or less inoculates it from scrutiny. Similarly, the mock high diction of the dialogue is sometimes impenetrable, but the characters themselves on occasion demand of one another “Speak English!” so the audience knows we’re not alone.
Spencer Liff’s choreography, by contrast, is lively and accessible. This might register to adventurous dance lovers as a disappointment: Nobody does The Watusi or The Pony (two ‘60s dance crazes that are mentioned in the lyrics of the song “We Got The Beat”), nor is there a single Galliard nor Gavotte nor any other of the refined dances popular in 16th century England.
The lyrics to the Go-Go’s songs remain unchanged in Head Over Heels – although at one point while the shepherd sings “I’m mad about you,” a chorus of back-up sheep belt “I’m mad about ewe.” It’s hard to argue that all the lyrics are a great fit. Not surprisingly, the songs don’t do what they’re traditionally supposed to do in musical theater – advance the action. The occasional effort to tie a song to the story might have been an embarrassment were it not (again) so obviously (even charmingly) a stretch: The creative team justifies beginning and ending the show with “We Got The Beat” by adding dialogue that suggests that “the beat” is the life force that fuels Arcadia ( “The beat heats our grapes and turns them to wine.”/ “It threshes our wheat and gives us to dine.” If all four prophecies come to pass, the Oracle proclaims, “you forfeit your beat.”)
But many of the songs by the Go-Go’s (and by Belinda Carlisle in her solo career) are about love, and these work fine when characters are yearning for love, or mourning its loss, or celebrating its consummation, especially “Heaven on Earth” which is accompanied by a green-lit shadow dance suggesting a smorgasbord of sexual congress.
And the music itself, which is arranged by Tom Kitt (Tony-winning composer of Next to Nothing) and performed by an all-female band, is sometimes used to great effect. At various moments throughout the show, a different character (and, one time, the entire cast) has an epiphany that registers as a kind of seizure – they shake, the lights flash….and the band plays a snippet of “Skidmarks on My Heart.”
Almost halfway through the show, Musidorus finds his Amazonian costume and blonde wig amid a pile of abandoned costumes beside a grouop of skeletons. There is a note attached, which he reads aloud:
“O traveler, behold and now applaud:
These sad remains are of our theater troupe, Starved for lack of Serious Message.”
O ‘tis a cruel business, that, and glad
Am I that I did not that life pursue.
This is characteristically cheeky, and meta, but it doesn’t quite apply to the musical at hand. Head Over Heels has a serious message beneath its frivolity. And more than Go-Go’s fans will surely be glad that Andrew Durand and the rest of the cast have kept at it.
WE GOT THE BEAT
WE GOT THE BEAT PLAYOFF
WHAT DOST THOU FEEL?
A GIANT SNAKE! (“This Town”)
PREPARE MY PORTAGE (“Get Up And Go” drums) THE ORACLE’S TEMPLE
VISION OF NOWNESS
‘TIS GENIUS (“We Got The Beat” guitar)
GET UP AND GO
SKIDMARKS ON MY HEART (PAMELA)
MAD ABOUT YOU
FROM HUSBAND TO FATHER TO WIDOWER GOOD GIRL
MUSIDORUS ENTERS EXHAUSTED
ASLANT MY AVIAN ORBITS
SKIDMARKS ON MY HEART (MUSIDORUS) VISION OF NOWNESS (REPRISE)
LIONS AND BEARS (“This Town”)
TIME SHOULD LIGHTLY FLY (“Vacation”) TRUMPETUS INTERRUPTUS
AUTOMATIC RAINY DAY
A LOUD ALARUM (“Vision of Nowness”) VACATION
GENEROUS AMAZON (“Cool Jerk”)
HOW MUCH MORE
THE FIRST FLAG (“Mad About You” and the Oracle) OUR LIPS ARE SEALED
SKIDMARKS ON MY HEART (PHILOCLEA)
HEAD OVER HEELS
AMONG THE TENTS
SKIDMARKS ON MY HEART (GYNECIA)
THIS OLD FEELING
TURN TO YOU
INSIDE THE CAVE
HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH
TIME TO THROW THE JAVELIN
LUST TO LOVE
HERE YOU ARE
THE FOURTH FLAG
THE GOLDEN STAG (“Mad About You”)
THOU WELL HORN’D
TO HADES HAD I FLED
MAD ABOUT YOU (REPRISE)
SKIDMARKS ON MY HEART (DAMETAS and MOPSA) BOHEMIA’S GATES (“Vacation”)
SKIDMARKS ON MY HEART (FULL COMPANY)
GO ROUND AND ROUND
Head Over Heels is on stage at the Hudson Theater (141 W. 44th St., between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10036)
Head Over Heels. Conceived and written by Jeff Whitty adapted by James Magruder, based upon The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney. Directed by Michael Mayer, musical supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Tom Kitt, choreography by Spencer Liff, scenic design by Julian Crouch, costume design by Arianne Phillips, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Kai Harada and projection design by Andrew Lazarow. Featuring Andrew Durand, Taylor Iman Jones, Jeremy Kushnier, Bonnie Milligan, Peppermint, Tom Alan Robbins, Alexandra Socha, Rachel York, Amber Ardolino, Yurel Echezarreta, Ari Groover, Tanya Haglund, Gregory Liles. Samantha Pollino, Justin Prescott, Ricardo A. Zayas. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.