Head Over Heels

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Head Over Heels

Hudson Theatre, NYC, August 1, 2018

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Peppermint and the Cast of Head Over Heels

Ready to suspend disbelief and embrace pure silliness? Catch the musical Head Over Heels at the Hudson Theatre, which is wacky enough to deliver a couple of frothy hours of fun. It will also help if you like Elizabethan romantic prose with plenty of plot twists, peppered with hits from The Go-Go’s that catch the beat and keep it going.

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A lot of 1970s and ’80s favorites are here, including The Go-Go’s’ signature songs, “We Got the Beat,” “Mad About You,” “Get Up and Go,” “Cool Jerk,” “Lust to Love,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”

A new jukebox musical, Head Over Heels is based on Arcadia, written by Sir Philip Sidney in the late 16th century. Arcadia went through its share of transformations, including Sir Philip’s own rewrite, setting off its complex history. In 1640, long after the author’s death, his prose romance became a hit play by James Shirley. Jeff Whitty based his book for Head Over Heels on Shirley’s play, and James Magruder adapted it for The Go-Go’s’ music. Michael Mayer directed the iambic pentameters with a broad hand, and Tom Kitt took care of the musical supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements. Spencer Liff added lively choreography, full of leaps, whirls, the ’60s Watusi, and ’80s voguing.

Best advice: just go with the flow. It is a labyrinthine story centering on the royal ruling family of Arcadia: King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and his love-hungry Queen Gynecia (Rachel York). They have two marriageable daughters. There’s the voluptuous plus-sized Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), who cannot find a suitable swain. She does, however, grow very close to her attentive handmaiden, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones).

Pamela’s naive younger sister, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), falls for a local shepherd, Musidorus (Andrew Durand), who speaks “Eclogue,” the shepherd’s tongue. By the end of Act I, it is not a spoiler to reveal that when the two sisters and their loves sing “Our Lips Are Sealed,” so are their fates. Hint: there are glitches in their budding romances that call for outré costumes, gender-bending Shakespeare style, and celebrating self-worth.

The King and his viceroy, Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), seek the advice of Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi, played with theatrical flair by Peppermint, costumed in Arianne Phillips’ technicolor glamour as she makes her Broadway debut as the first transgender woman to create a principal role. She warns of four prophesies facing the family to prevent Arcadia from disintegrating due to outmoded tradition. “Arcadia has grown too orderly. Bound by the iron yoke of tradition, it stagnates.”

The cast of Head Over Heels

Time to “Get Up and Go,” says the King. So the family (secretly followed by Musidorus, disguising himself as an Amazon warrior) sets off for Bohemia and a new life where people can be free and make their own choices. Expect the unexpected—mermaids frolicking in the water, a surprising rescue from a lion, overcoming the Golden Stag problem, unexpected lovers having sex in a cave, and a spontaneous vacation on Lesbos. Julian Crouch designs one witty creative set after another, revealed by Kevin Adams’ spectacular lighting. And bummer: when they think they’ve reached Bohemia, they find they have just traveled in a circle and are back in Arcadia. Although everyone has changed somewhat, the King is still the King and Arcadia still has the beat.

Peppermint as the Oracle is great fun to watch, and the likable characters are all drawn with distinctive individualities. An impressive soprano and wry comedienne, Bonnie Milligan is perfect as the zaftig Pamela who boasts of her beauty and is proud of her love for Mopsa. As Pythio predicts, “She’ll consummate her love—but with no groom!” Alexandra Socha, memorable in Encores’ Paint Your Wagon, is the ingénue, Philoclea. Outstanding is the unflagging Durand, delivering a twisty, multilayered portrayal of Philoclea’s beloved shepherd, Musidorus, who finds he has to fight off the advances of the Queen, played with feisty determination by Rachel York. Believable are Kushnier as the King and Robbins as the humorous Dameta.

Admittedly, the message about tolerance is drummed into us with a heavy hand.

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While Head Over Heels is not this season’s My Fair Lady, and even if you occasionally nod off amid the frenzied hilarity, all in all, you’ll be surprised at the fun and laughs offered by this clever zaniness with a beat.

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for Theatre.com and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.