Bonnie Milligan as
Pamela (center) with Tanya Haglund, Samantha Pollino, Ari Groover
Ardolino photos by Joan Marcus
by Deirdre Donovan
don’t have to know a lick about Elizabethan times or the American rock band the
Go Go’s to enjoy the new jukebox musical Head Over Heels, which opened
at the Hudson Theatre on July 26. Directed by Michael Mayer, this theatrical
confection comes complete with a scrumptious set and costumes, the luminous
Peppermint (Yes, she of “RuPaul Drag Race” fame) and a delightfully loopy story
based on Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century long prose poem The Arcadia.
over Heels first
tickled audiences at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, garnering
favorable notices from the critics and creating sizable ripples in the theater
world. It resurfaced at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco last spring,
amassing more plaudits, before winging into the Big Apple in June.
scenario. It draws from Sydney’s The Arcadia, but fortunately fillets
the original ( book by Jeff Whitty, adapted by James Magruder) to satisfy
all the characters hail from Arcadia, dress in Elizabethan attire (costumes by
Arianne Phillips) and speak in—what else--iambic pentameter. And that’s not
all. These Arcadians exuberantly sing, dance (choreography by Spencer Liff),
and breathe to the vibes of the Go Go’s songs.
you can swallow this zany conceit, be prepared to meet the royal family.
There’s Basilius, King of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier), his wife Gynecia (Rachel
York), their older daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), and their younger
daughter Philoclea (Alexandra Socha).
Andrew Durand as
Musidorus and Alexandra Socha as Philoclea
opening scene gives you a full immersion into the pastoral world via the annual
Celebration of the Flocks, where young swains have their once-a-year
opportunity to win the hand of Basilius’ older daughter Pamela. With a
plus-sized figure that calls to mind the curvy women in a Ruben’s painting,
Pamela appears as a vision of young womanhood here. Forget our own notions of
beauty in the new millennium. In Arcadia, big is beautiful. That means that
Philoclea, the King’s so-called plain daughter (she’s the petite one) will be
ignored by the opposite sex, except for a shepherd named Musidorus (Andrew
Durand), her childhood friend. When Musidorus boldly proposes to Philoclea,
however, his proposal is scoffed by her conventionally-minded parents who don’t
want their royal daughter “to marry beneath her station.” Unable to break free
of custom and her father’s tyranny, the “good daughter” Philoclea declines
Musidorus’ marriage proposal. And, to rub salt into the wounds, Basilius
threatens Musidorus with death if he attempts to woo his daughter again.
Peppermint (center) as
Pythio, The Oracle of Delphi
romance makes the sparks fly in the story, it’s the supernatural that takes it
to the next level. Fifteen minutes in, Basilius consults an oracle named
Pythio (Peppermint) to learn of his family’s future. But when Basilius hears
Pithio reveal that his family will undergo romantic woes, he sets out to undo
the bleak prophecy by relocating his family to Bohemia.
it isn’t easy going for the royals. The pilgrimage takes them down unknown
paths, through stretches of wilderness, where a lion springs out of a thicket
and threatens to devour Philoclea. Miraculously, Musidorus, who has earlier
disguised himself as an Amazon woman, appears out of the blue and kills the
lion. The King, who doesn’t recognize the regendered Musidorus, immediately
proclaims the lion-slayer a heroine and assures him that his noble behavior
will be rewarded. Of course, complications arise when Musidorus unwittingly
becomes involved in a love triangle with the King (who thinks Musidorus is a
“she”) and Queen (who learns that Musidorus is a “he”). In short, seeds of
confusion are sowed in almost every scene. And one wonders if love can
possibly prevail in this pastoral romance. But I’ll refrain from answering
that question and let you find out by visiting the theater yourself.
Crouch’s set is spectacular! While there’s much to feast your eyes on when the
royals are in Arcadia, there’s even more to marvel at when the royals and their
entourage embark to Bohemia. It’s impossible to single out any given moment as
the best-in-show, but the mermaid scene in Act 1 (with Mopsa and the female
ensemble singing “Vacation”) is pure enchantment and the supposed adultery
scene executed in silhouette in Act 2 is equally mesmerizing.
book deserves nothing but praise. An arsenal of wit and word play, It hardly
needs a musical note to embellish its brilliance. Admittedly, the Go Go’s
songs do ratchet up the energy of this musical. But it is Whitty's book that
gives the production its spine.
about the Go Go’s—and their catalogue of songs. If you already are a
died-in-the-wool fan, you’ll love listening to the 18 musical numbers that are
interspersed into the show. The opening ensemble number “We Got the Beat” will
get your pulse racing as the company belts out the lyrics, sending you on a
nostalgic journey to when the Pony and Watusi were in vogue. “Mad About You”
is perhaps the most pastorally-correct song as it employs a flock of fake lambs
to bleat out “mad about ewe” (get it?) in synch with the voice of the lovesick
shepherd Musidorus. Not all the songs are as good as these two, but “Heaven is
a Place on Earth” in Act 2 will go straight to your heart and soul.
it’s evident that the Go Go’s songs are shoe-horned into scenes to amplify the
action at large. But isn’t that de rigueur for most other jukebox
good to report that the acting ensemble is brimming with talent and measure up
as pseudo-Elizabethan thesps. Jeremy Kushnier possesses enough chutzpah for
playing the King of Arcadia, whose manipulative mind and philandering streak
mark him as an alpha male with a dark side. Tom Allan Robbins, as Dametas, is
amusing to watch as the King’s right-hand man. Bonnie Milligan, as the older
daughter Pamela, has a powerhouse voice and the comic flair to pull off her
buxom character’s surprising journey to a same-sex romance. Alexandra Socha’s
Philoclea is ideal as the good girl who slowly ripens into a woman. Taylor
Iman Jones, as Mopsa, unabashedly brings Sapphic love into the musical. And
Andres Durand’s Musidorus is one cross-dressed shepherd who is impossible to
forget and hilarious to watch as he alternately becomes the heart-throb of
Basilius, Gynecia, and Philoclea.
No question Peppermint steals the show every time she materializes on stage as
the oracle Pithio. Her Pithio has edge—and a New York attitude. And, in case
you are wondering, Pithio’s pronounce preference is “they.” Or as the
sooth-sayer parses it in the Temple of Oracle scene: “My qualities transcend your
rude opinion! Pythio is a non-binary plural.”
there’s some flaws in the musical. The Go Go’s songs are catchy—but aren’t of
the same caliber as Whitty’s book. Moreover, several references to Greek
mythology might have some theatergoers scratching their heads. Remember the
eagle of Caucasus who feasts on the liver of Prometheus? How about Amazon
woman warriors? Perhaps these are small quibbles, in light of the musical’s
better qualities. But be forewarned before going to the show that its songs
fall short of the book--and you’d be wise to bring a pocket-sized text of Greek
mythology that you can thumb through during intermission.
be surprised if you detect strong echoes of Shakespeare’s comedies in Head
Over Heels. Regendering, mistaken identities, old lovers rediscovering
themselves, young lovers finding the nerve to love, and the juxtaposition of
the court with pastoral life are all part and parcel of Shakespeare’s
dramaturgy and this new-fangled piece.
said, this new jukebox musical, with its classically-culled story from Sydney
and its post-modern high jinx, has a lot going for it. And it offers one a
rare opportunity to seeing history being made on Broadway with Peppermint, the
first transgender woman, playing a principal role on the Great White Way.
to her, and bravo to the entire cast and creative team--who have brought this
faux-Elizabethan show to vibrant life in the new millennium.
the Hudson Theatre, at 141 W 44th St, Manhattan.
tickets and more information, phone 855-801-5876 or
time: 2 hours; 15 minutes, including intermission.