A Groundbreaking Go-Go's Musical in Head Over Heels
Inclusivity takes center stage in this 16th-century pastoral romance scored with the punk-rock stylings of the 1980s.
The most groundbreaking new musical on Broadway is based on a long 16th-century prose work and uses the songs of the 1980s new-wave punk band The Go-Go's.
Surprised? You're not alone. Head Over Heels at the Hudson Theatre, could end up being the biggest shocker of the still-nascent 2018-19 season. An uproarious romp inspired by Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, Head Over Heels is not only a sterling example of inclusivity, but also a beautiful model of how progressive Broadway has the potential to be.
And to think, the main, silly plot point follows a kingdom that possesses a mythical lifeblood called the "beat" (as in, "We Got The…") and its quest not to lose it after a divine premonition. After being told that Arcadia is in peril, King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) travels to Delphi, where the gender non-binary oracle Pythio (Peppermint of RuPaul's Drag Race) informs him of four visions: younger daughter Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) will bring home a liar; elder, prettier daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) will consent to get married, but will consummate her love without a groom; the King and his wife, Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) will commit adultery with each other; and that the King himself will meet a better leader than he. If all four portents come true, the beat will be lost forever.
The King hatches a different plan to save his beat and shield his family from the premonition. He creates a diversion: They must "Get Up and Go" on a quest to find a golden stag, which will appease the gods upon being sacrificed. But Basilius doesn't see the premonitions coming true before his very eyes. Philoclea is taken with the shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand), who disguises himself as the female Cleophila in order to join them on their journey. A bourgeoning romance is also taking place between Pamela and Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), her lady in waiting and the daughter of Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the King's viceroy. And the King and Queen find themselves crushing on Cleophila, but for very different reasons.
Conceived and originally written by Jeff Whitty for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, Head Over Heels is "adapted" for this run by James Magruder, a fiction writer and translator. The gleefully subversive remnants of Whitty's original work are seen in spurts. Pamela has a deliciously bawdy scene where she comes up with poems about whom she wants to fall in love with — and every downbeat ends with a rhyme for female genitalia.
Milligan, whose foot-stompingly funny performance is one of the great breakthroughs of the year, milks it for all it's worth. She also milks Whitty's other touch for her character, subverting the traditional musical theater expectations of princessdom. As her sister, Socha nicely plays a supporting ingénue character, a twist that we rarely, if ever, get to see. Both offer vocal fireworks; Milligan sends the song "Beautiful" into the rafters while Socha tenderly soars with the eleven o'clock number "Here You Are."
Magruder's adaptation has the tendency to fall into self-seriousness. We're watching a Go-Go's musical where "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" becomes a "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me"-style sex montage, and yet a lot of the book scenes are written (and played) like they're Lear. Similarly, he misses other opportunities to give audiences what they really want: Peppermint, nonstop and all the time (she's fabulous in Frank-N-Furter mode, but MIA for most of the show), and Rachel York belting her head off.
As far as creativity goes, Head Over Heels is jubilant. Julian Crouch provides a lovely pastoral set reminiscent of European toy theaters, while Arianne Phillips's costumes flirt with 1580s and 1980s sensibilities and shoes. Kevin Adams's lighting is all neon all the time, giving off a club feel. Spencer Liff's thought-defying, actor-specific choreography is truly exceptional, while Kimberly Grigsby leads a bangin' all-female band of five. You can hear every word sung — and every guitar strum — thanks to Kai Harada's incomparable sound design.
It's obvious that the production is the singular vision of director Michael Mayer. While the energy flags here and there when the ensemble isn't singing and dancing, Mayer's efforts cannot be understated. He's created the most inclusive production on Broadway, one that 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. You'll be head over heels by the time the curtain falls.