REVIEW: A refreshingly queer “Head Over Heels” brings the beat
“Thou better workest!”
Thus speaks Pythio, the paradigmatic Oracle of Delphi played by drag queen and trans-activist Peppermint as a “non-binary plural” in “Head Over Heels”—a new musical that opened on Broadway tonight at the Hudson Theatre.
Based on “The Arcadia”—a 1640 adaption of Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century romantic prose—and featuring 17 songs by 1980s female rock group The Go-Go’s, “Head Over Heels” is an upbeat, gender fluid, Renaissance retro romp that is decidedly, and refreshingly, queer.
“Head Over Heels” is many things, but “starved for lack of serious message”, as one character opines about the state of the theatre, is not one of them. Gleefully playing with conventions of Elizabethan theatre, conceiver and book writer Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), adapter James Magruder (who re-wrote Mr. Whitty's book), and director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) have fashioned an irreverent, farcical tale that delivers a not-so-subtle message about gender diversity and acceptance with a “vision of nowness” perfectly keyed to this moment.
Pythio descends to the Kingdom of Arcadia, which is fueled by “the beat” (as in “We Got The Beat”), to deliver a devastating prophecy to King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) that following four turns of events the beat will cease and the earth stand still. On the occasion of the summer solstice, Basilius’ elder daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), voluptuous and vain, continues her tradition of rebuffing her many male suitors, while his younger daughter, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), earnest and plain, hides a disapproved-of romance with Musidorus (Andrew Durand), a goofy shepherd who waxes poetic.
Alongside his daughters, wife, Gynecia (Rachel York), viceroy, Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), and Dametas’s daughter and Pamela’s attendant, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), Basilius leads his court into the woods (of course) in an attempt to forestall their doom. Musidorus follows, re-gendering himself in disguise as Cleophila the Amazon—donning a blonde wig, metal breast plate, and leather skirt—setting off a chain of “mistaken identities, jealous lovers, secret rendezvouses, and sexual awakening” that rocks every member of our traveling party, leaving the women clearly in charge and the promise of a “gentler man” evolving on the horizon. I won’t say more, for most of the fun lies in watching the plot unfold.
This feel-good musical performs a great trick by getting an audience of fans of The Go-Go’s to watch a loose adaptation of an obscure 17th century Elizabethan play performed in verse. It is clever enough and funny enough, but disappointingly just enough—light fare with a great message and jolly fun throughout that ultimately fails to make a deeper impression. The fault lies with the score, the songs of which interrupt a free flowing story, add little dramatic texture, never propel action forward, and are mostly unremarkable and one-note.
“Head Over Heels” begs the question of whether a jukebox musical can really work if the underlying songs are not popularly known. The Go-Go’s have a claim to being the most successful female rock band of all time, but that said, the crux of their body of work consists of just three studio albums—33 songs—released between 1981 and 1984, and a fourth album from 2001—contributing an additional 13 songs to their oeuvre.
With the exception of “We Got the Beat”, “Vacation”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” (which is actually a Belinda Carlisle solo career hit), the rest of the songs in the score, I suspect, are likely to be unknown to most theatregoers, which is fine, but violates the tenant of instant familiarity and allure of nostalgia that prop up jukebox musicals. In Carrie Bradshaw voiceover: I can’t help but wonder if “Head Over Heels” would work better as a play.
A fleeting trip to the island of Lesbos by Mopsa is nothing more than a reason to interpolate “Vacation”, and is dead weight dropped into the latter portion of act one. Most dance breaks belabor instead of embellishing a point, even as fabulously composed by Spencer Liff (“Spring Awakening”, 2015) and fiercely performed by the ensemble. At base, the songs of The Go-Go’s don’t tell stories with much specificity, so they are less effective when dropped into a musical, feeling repetitive and falling flat.
The good news is that despite its score, the show remains eminently enjoyable and features a handful of standout performances, most notably that of Bonnie Milligan. I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Milligan in “Jasper in Deadland” back in 2014, and have been awaiting her Broadway debut. She is, without a doubt, the star of “Head Over Heels”, rocking the Hudson with her astonishing vocal runs and powerhouse belting (her Twitter handle, @BeltingBonnie, is an understatement). She is also wickedly funny—the sharpest performer on stage—seconded by Mr. Durand, who is also a delight to observe in his clowning and physical comedy.
Ms. Milligan’s presence, in a role tailor-written for her, marks a welcomed victory for size diversity on Broadway. A self-described “big girl”, her character, Pamela, is the undisputed beauty of the kingdom; she’s funny, not because of her size, but because of her vanity: “my context is oppressive”, being a particularly favorite zinger of mine.
“Head Over Heels” will likely engender a cult following because of the breadth of diversity on its stage and in its story. Peppermint is the first trans woman to play a principal role on Broadway. The ensemble is gender fluid, and the finale finds some same-sex couplings in its midst. There is a distinctly queer joy voguing through the show, and a palette of representation that matters. The songs may be lackluster, but the heart of “Head Over Heels” never stops beating.
Bottom Line: “Head Over Heels”, a new musical featuring songs by The Go-Go’s, is an upbeat, gender fluid, Renaissance retro romp that is decidedly, and refreshingly, queer. Clever enough and funny enough, though the songs are mostly lackluster, the heart of “Head Over Heels” never stops beating, and the show features a palette of diverse representation that matters.