In San Francisco for only a few weeks before it premieres on Broadway this summer, “Head Over Heels” is an infectiously funny, lively and smart upbeat musical with lots of glitz and pizzazz.
Originally conceived by Tony winner Jeff Whitty (writer of the book to the Broadway musical “Avenue Q”), and after a less than stellar try-out at the Oregon Shakespeare festival in 2015, the producers (including Gwyneth Paltrow) brought in director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” with Neil Patrick Harris) and book adaptor James Magruder (“The Flamingo Kid,” “Triumph of Love”), who have transformed this clever combination of Sir Philip Sidney’s Elizabethan text “Old Arcadia” (cir.1580) with the songs of the 80’s girl pop band, the Go-Go’s (“We Got the Beat,” Get Up and Go,” “Vacation”) into a hit.
Even if you never liked the Go-Go’s, or never even heard of them, for that matter, their music, as orchestrated and arranged by Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner, Tom Kitt, sounds upbeat and new, with agreeable melodies, accompanied by inventive dancing. And the story of the travels of the Arcadian King Basilius and his family to escape the dire prophecies of an oracle has been fashioned to meld nearly seamlessly with the themes and lyrics of the Go-Go’s hits. The exception is the splashy opening number, “We Got the Beat,” which is sung about Arcadia. The reference seems to be to the heartbeat, or the soul, of Arcadia, but a better explanation of the song’s relation to Arcadia would have been helpful, especially at the start of the show.
The convivial plot of the 130-minute, two-act “Head Over Heels” will be familiar to lovers of Shakespearean-era comedies. King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) has a neglected wife (Rachel York) and two daughters, the buxom and conceited Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), and the younger selfless Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), who is in love with the shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand). Heeding the predictions of the Oracle Pythio (played by Peppermint, the first acknowledged trans woman to originate a principal role on Broadway), the group flees their treasured Arcadia on a road trip to Bohemia. Musidorus follows his beloved, disguised as a female Amazon warrior. When he kills a threatening lion, the king falls hard for her/his youthful sexuality. The queen, who has secretly observed that the Amazon is actually a male, also is attracted to him/her. Much frolic ensues.
Another major sub-plot involves Pamela’s awakening to her homosexuality. In one very funny bit she writes love poems in which rhymes that refer to female genitalia are left unfinished. But although “Head Over Heels” prides itself on its forward thinking liberality (“We should all be our best selves”), some slapstick humor is attempted by mocking Pamela’s large body. I didn’t think was funny or furthered the plot.
The acting in “Head Over Heels” is uniformly first-rate. Since the plot isn’t overly complex, the actors could lean into the farcical and visual nature of the show a bit more. The creative team has enhanced the production tremendously. Michael Mayer’s skillful direction, the ingenious choreography (Spencer Liff), the painted backdrops (Julian Crouch), the festive, flamboyant period-esque costumes (Arianne Phillips), the touches of psychedelic lighting (Kevin Adams) and of course, the music (Tom Kitt) have all done their magic. “Head Over Heels” is great fun – it looks great, sounds great and makes you feel great — all the ingredients of a 2018 Broadway musical comedy hit.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved