Billed as a “new musical” Head Over Heels is lashed to the thrum of the early 80s hits of The Go-Go’s. (I know, you think you don’t remember the Go-Go’s…but the songs linger in your lizard brain. “Mad About You,” “This Old Feeling,” “We’ve Got the Beat”)...
Along with the period music, the plot is framed as a faux-classic ramble — the mythic kingdom of Arcadia has drawn the ire of the Delphic Oracle who, in the way of oracles, offers up an opaque prophesy, which sends the players on a trek of discovery.
The thematic thrust here is “binary is sooo last century!” It’s not so much politically edgy as it is gently teasing, a crash course on LGBTQ+ sensibility, but all very safe. This high-spirited production is for folks looking for a good time — a lot of pounding good music — young actors with powerhouse voices — and a director who knows his way around a farce.
Jeff Whitty’s book, based on Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Arcadia, addresses the message in entertaining, if sometimes puerile, ploys: the un-woke virgin, strangely disinterested in male suitors, reads her unfinished poem aloud, searching dimly for the obvious. Whitty has fun with a rhyming device as Pamela probes her orientation. If you are old enough to know what intrinsically female word rhymes with “hunt”…well, I think you know where we’re going.
There are moments of hilarity, the kind of laughter that catches you up and keeps doubling back. Dressing dancers as sheep is a little funny…dressing beautiful young Broadway baby boys as slightly swishy sheep is just a giggle. It’s not “dancing sheep” so much as a play on Python’s “We Like Sheep” skit; it’s its own silly, monumentally funny moment. Say no more.
The audience was suspiciously enthusiastic, suggesting a loyal fan base and, perhaps, a papered Thursday night house. When Peppermint, a marquee name from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” makes her entrance (as well as the Broadway debut of a transgender woman in a leading role) the room went crazy. Actually, the room was already a little light-headed. My guest noted it had the feel of the early days of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Much of the audience was dressed in gender-signifying outfits — again, nothing naked and pierced — just a kind of lighthearted play.
The cast is pretty and talented. Bonnie Milligan developed the role of Pamela at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She is a viscountess of vanity, princess of preening, a madonna of me.
Milligan plays her broadly. She never misses an opportunity to wink the audience into her character. She is perfect.
Taylor Imam Jones plays Pamela’s servant and so much more. Jones and Alexandra Socha and Andrew Durand all bring strong, distinctive voices and a fair share of comic timing. Durand, in and out of drag, is terrific, with moments of manic madness.
The dancers work in twos and fours and in larger assemblies. Some of the transitions are a little rocky, probably only noticeable because the complex production numbers are executed with such joy and precision. The band driving the sound is flawless and powerful and, like the Go-Gos, all women.
Kevin Adams’ lighting is stunning, Kai Harada’s sound is crucial. Spencer Liff’s choreography is dazzling; everyone moves well all of the time. I wanted to see this show because it’s reeking with talented people behind the lights and before. If I started listing set designer Julian Crouch’s credits, director Michael Mayer’s credits or writer Jeff Whitty’s credits, we’d be here all day.
While there is some talk on this show suggesting it may not make enough to fill out its run, I’m hopeful. I’d buy a ticket.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"You would think that a sexually polymorphous musical that combines a Renaissance pastoral romance with the songs of the 1980s Califoria rock group The Go-Go's would at the very least be a hoot, a show that could get sloppy drunk on its own outrageousness. Yet Head Over Heels, which opened on Thursday night at the Hudson Theatre, feels as timid and awkward as the new kid on the first day of school. Make that the new kid who longs to run with the wild crowd but can’t quite commit to being as bad as coolness demands. Directed by Michael Mayer, who has been more than competent at the helm of Broadway rock musicals like American Idiot and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Head Over Heels lacks the courage of its contradictions. It mutters deferentially when what you want is a rebel yell."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Broadway traditionalists may not approve, but that feels like part of the point. Head Over Heels is a fantasy and celebration of nonconformity, and it puts its casting where its mouth is with an ensemble that is diverse in race, gender and size. Honoring the beat, in this merry Arcadia, means making room for different drummers."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Back to the source, Sir Philip called his prose romance, a trifle. Indeed that's just what Head Over Heels is. And if that's your speed, you may just flip for it."
Roma Torre for NY1
"If you have trouble imagining songs like "Vacation" and "Cool Jerk" fitting into a scenario depicting a royal family's romantic complications, you still will after seeing this relentlessly frothy musical, for which the term "check your brain at the door" could have been invented. The farcical, gender-fluid shenanigans are as campy as things get on Broadway. And that's saying something."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"From the sets and costumes to the performance style, the basic principle seems to be: Less is boring and more is never enough. Thanks, no doubt, to the Oracle of Delphi (played here by the impishly funny Peppermint), it’s a miracle that at least some of the wit in Jeff Whitty’s original book gets through."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...