For better or worse, Broadway’s Head Over Heels is stuck with being known as “the Go-Go’s musical” – better because of the good will floating on stage with all those lighter-than-air hits by Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, et.al., worse because the hard-working new production can’t seem to keep itself from popping those effervescence tune bubbles one by one.
With the Go-Go’s music shotgun-wedded to Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century prose poem The Arcadia – a marriage conceived by Avenue Q‘s Jeff Whitty, who wrote the original book before splitting, reportedly in part over his inclination to rewrite some of the Go-Go’s lyrics – Head Over Heels is Elizabethan farce by way of ye olde MTV. The verse may be archaic, but the we’re here sentiment is as up to date as last week’s episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Further adapted by James Magruder (Triumph of Love) and directed by Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), Head Over Heels uses lots of the rib-poking, anachronistic jokes and drag-queen ribaldry that, once upon a Ridiculous Theatrical Company time when Charles Ludlam ruled the land, seemed both revolutionary and dangerous. Now, when either the material seems tamed for a general audience – or the general audience seems untamed enough for the material – Head Over Heels just strikes as winking and self-satisfied, occasionally amusing, occasionally cloying.
The plot, lest you expect an odd Go-Go to bounce on stage: Set in the old kingdom of Arcadia, the townfolk are kept happy by something called “The Beat.” I say “something” because, while perhaps earlier script drafts explained the device, here, it’s mentioned and then more or less forgotten.
The kingdom, campily depicted through painted, intentionally artificial flats, and where everyone speaks in verse and generally lives by way of Shakespearean tropes, is ruled by the privileged, mansplaining King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and his deeply unfulfilled (in many ways) wife Gynecia (a wonderful Rachel York). The royal daughters have the usual love dramas, if by usual we mean the younger Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) is besmitten with low-stationed, good-hearted shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand) and the vain elder Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) rejects one buff suitor after another, each young swain lacking a certain something – a something Pamela’s female attendant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) seems to have in spades.
Farcical complications are set in cross-dressing motion when the shepherd disguises himself as an Amazon, bringing out the lustful urges in, well, just about everyone, regardless of station or gender. The usual hijinks and mistaken pairings ensue, along with the expected voguing and ’80s-influenced dancing.
But the main complication arrives via Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi, played, in fact, by Peppermint, a former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Early in the goings on, Pythio foretells King Basilius and his lost-on-the-way-to-the-Forum viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins) about some bad mojo heading for Arcadia, punishment, it seems, for all the duplicity and intolerance going on.
Even before Peppermint’s Pythio intones “Thou better workest” – a groaner that seems more dated than all the Elizabethan versifying – Head Over Heels is on its way to upending patriarchy, homophobia, sexism, intolerance and subtlety. For a show that is so determined to transcend convention – or, as Peppermint is directed to deliver the word early on, “traaaaaaannnnnssssend” – Head Over Heels feels predicable from start to finish. Even Peppermint, whom the production credits with being Broadway’s first transgender woman to create a principal role, provides little here that hasn’t been tested in Kinky Boots and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a familiar role that’s coming awfully close to some sort of flamboyant diva equivalent of Spike Lee’s “Magical Negro.”
Head Over Heels offers up a few surprises. Bonnie Milligan’s eldest princess Pamela plays on our notions of conventional beauty, confident and convincing in her plus-size appeal even though the supposedly “plain” younger sister hews closer to Broadway’s notion of the classic ingenue.
But the biggest surprise is an unfortunate one: The Go-Go’s songs, which must certainly must have provided the initial attraction for a production team that, over the show’s four-years-plus of development has been joined by Gwyneth Paltrow, Donovan Leitch and a kingdom-load of others, don’t hold up all that well. At least not in musical theater form. From the title tune to group best “Our Lips are Sealed,” the lovely, buoyant, throw-away pop confections get blanded-out into show tune mediocrity. At the final curtain, when the stage band is revealed and lets loose with a rocking, closer-to-the-original “We Got the Beat,” you might wish they’d proven it earlier.