Peppermint (center) and the cast of ‘Head Over Heels.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
They got the beat, but do you?
Don’t worry. If you’re not rhythmically inclined, the cast of Broadway’s Head Over Heels will bludgeon it out of you with unrelenting determination. Subtle it is not. Entertaining? If a jukebox musical crammed into the construct of an epic 16th-century work of prose is your jam, sure.
Let’s briefly scroll back the hands of time. Earlier this year I was invited to New York City’s Bowery Ballroom for a “private concert event” — a sneak peek of a new musical featuring the music of The Go-Go’s. The all-female rock band, now looking more Ann Taylor than 1980s punk, had reunited to kick things off, sounding just as amazing as they did more than 35 years ago. Director Michael Mayer made some remarks, spinning a complicated tale of an oracle’s curse, mistaken identities and rhyming couplets. I wondered if the whole idea might be a tax write-off, so crazy that nobody in his or her right mind would sink money into it. But producer Jordon Roth (Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon) was also in the house, wearing Head Over Heels-branded sunglasses and working the crowd. I thought, this guy is serious.
After a limited run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre this spring, Head Over Heels has pony-stepped its way into Broadway’s Hudson Theatre. And just as Mr. Mayer promised, it’s jam-packed with antics not-so-loosely based on Sir Philip Sidney’s epic Renaissance tale Arcadia.
King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) confronts oracle Pythos (Peppermint), who predicts the fate of his two daughters (Bonnie Milligan and Alexandra Socha), his wife’s (Rachel York) adultery, and the passing of the crown. Basilius gathers his family and villagers, heading into the forest to slay his future successor.
The top-notch cast, in perpetual high gear under Mr. Mayer’s direction, traverses passages of iambic pentameter by Jeff Whitty (original book) and James Magruder (adaption). Ms. Milligan leads the charge with a brazen yet lovable performance as the narcissistic elder daughter with unresolved feelings for her bestie (Taylor Iman Jones). Diversity also reigns supreme with Peppermint’s appearance as the first transgender woman to originate a principal role on Broadway. (Alexandra Billings will appear in The Nap this fall).
Choreographer Spencer Liff (Spring Awakening, FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance”) has plenty of ammunition thanks to Tom Kitt’s super-charged orchestrations and arrangements. Hip-hop, voguing, dizzying pirouettes, and a few too many waves keep the ensemble moving at breakneck pace with barely a chance to catch one’s breath. Less successful moments such as “Vacation” rely on gimmicky stagecraft and look like a cheap theme park show.
Head Over Heels offers plenty of eye candy with a mash-up of styles that occasionally stumble. Gorgeous costumes by Arianne Phillips evoke period silhouettes with custom textiles, while Kevin Adams’ saturated lighting gives Julian Crouch’s two-dimensional scenic design much-needed depth. It’s probably best to not give much thought to the century-spanning influences, particularly Andrew Lazarow’s projections, which echo 1980s video games but look uninspired compared to high-definition offerings seen just a few blocks away in Mean Girls and Anastasia.
Heads Over Heels also conks you over the head with plenty of progressive grammatical references that validates Condé Nast’s 2017 launch of them, a “next-generation community platform” as seen through the lens of the queer community. Recent seasons have seen commercial and critical success with shows like Fun Home, Angels in America, and The Boys in the Band, while Naked Boys Singing! has been strutting its codpieceless stuff for nearly two decades. This rainbow-proud revelry doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the message is clear:
We’re here. We’re queer. And we know how to have a good time.
Head Over Heel’s greatest stride, though, is the casting of Ms. Milligan, a plus-size actress following in the footsteps paved by Lisa Howard (Escape to Margaritaville, It Shoulda Been You). Gorgeously buxom with a piercing pop voice and unapologetic demeanor, she delivers a diva-turning performance that discards body shaming along with any unnecessary pandering to her size. We believe it when she sings, “Beautiful, is all I see when I look at me; Beautiful every mother’s dream!” But more importantly, she believes it.
In spite of its jubilant spirit, Head Over Heels flounders when it tries to make sense of the Go-Go’s songbook. Band members Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Kathy Valentine broke new ground in the early 80s with a fresh punk/pop sound. Hit such as “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and the show’s namesake number are as catchy as ever, but Oscar and Hammerstein they are not so don’t expect a plot-driven lyric to appear in Arcadia.
Couples reunite in polyamorous embraces at show’s end as the set flies away to reveal an all-female band. I not-so-secretly wished Belinda Carlisle was back there, barefoot and shaking a tambourine as she often did as the Go-Go’s frontwoman. No such luck. But a new generation of women, men, and gender/sexually non-conforming performers are making plenty of noise. Finally, we’re listening.
Head Over Heels
141 West 44th Street, NYC
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and a recent fellow of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.