What do you get when you marry an Elizabethan romance with 1980’s American new wave pop songs? HEAD OVER HEELS, an exuberant, raucous and joyous musical based on Sir Philip Sidney’s 1580 prose romance The Arcadia propelled by the infectious beat of songs of the all-woman rock band The Go-Go’s, that’s what.
First staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, HEAD OVER HEELS boasts impressive creative credentials. It was conceived by Jeff Whitty (AVENUE Q) who penned the original book, then adapted by James Magruder (TRIUMPH OF LOVE and stage versions of lots of 19th century literature), and directed by Michael Mayer (Tony Award for HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH). Add in choreographer Spencer Liff (SPRING AWAKENING) and Tom Kitt (Pulitzer Prize and Tony for NEXT TO NORMAL) to orchestrate and arrange The Go-Go’s songs and the classic “trouble in paradise” fable gets a most inspired and modern reboot.
Life is perfect in the kingdom (it’s Arcadia) ruled by the smugly satisfied Basilius (played by Jeremy Kushnier) and his wife Gynecia (Rachel York). The opening number, “We Got the Beat”, one of the Go-Go’s biggest pop hits, relays “we got this covered”: tradition and order is fixed among the royals, their court and subjects. But when Pythio the Oracle prophesizes doom, they are set on journeys that turn their precepts about life around. In Whitty and Margruder’s version, Sir Sidney’s paean of romantic love gets re-imagined as a parable of tolerance for all combinations of sex, gender and class.
Musidorus (played by Andrew Durand), the lowly shepherd, falls in love with Princess Philoclea (Alexandra Socha). To stay close to Philoclea, as he is not of her station, Musidorus disguises himself as a female Amazon, but he soon becomes the object of royal lust of King and the ueen, who discovers her latent Sapphic tendencies. Meanwhile, Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), Philocela’s older sister, who’s always assumed her match would be a prince charming, finds both soul and bed mate in her court handmaiden Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones).
Director Mayer serves the fable up with pomp and romp. Some language observes Shakespeare’s iambic form. The colorful sets and lavish costumes are informed with a sophisticated period visual vocabulary accented with cartoonish wit, like the whimsical reproduction of Botticelli’s Italian Renaissance masterpiece “The Birth of Venice.” The romp comes from a chock-a-block of double-entendre, sexual innuendo, parody and physical hijinx, including a Chinese fire drill of bed partner-swapping in silhouette. High camp prevails, championed by Pythio The Oracle as diva, majestically played by Peppermint of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame, making Broadway history as the first transgender woman to create a principal role.
Adaptor Whitty ingeniously slips The Go-Go’s songs into the classic tale. “Mad About You” perfectly expresses the infatuation of Musidorus with Philoclea. “Our Lips Are Sealed” voices the princesses’ secret pact not to let the parents know they’ve found partners whom they wouldn’t approve. “Heaven is a Place on Earth” emerges as a happy reconciliation of foretold doom and adjusted ideal. “Vacation”, with a mermaid chorus cavorting amongst leaping fish, set on the isle of Lesbos, epitomizes the giddiness of the whole production.
The ensemble performs with uniform talent, but the women featured shine through. Besides diva Peppermint, Broadway newcomer Bonnie Mulligan brings sweet bravura and salty voice to Princess Pamela’s newfound same-sex pleasures. Rachel York’s imbues Queen Gynecia’s awakening to a full womanhood of mind and body with throaty, lusty gusto.
“Habemus percussio”, inscribed on the proscenium of the Hudson Theatre stage, presides like a dictum through all the rollicking, bouncing gaiety. The Arcadia restored in HEAD OVER HEELS creates a world that’s better for this smart and silly, imaginative musical.
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