It is not until about halfway through when the music and the plot settle down to tell Sir Philip Sidney’s story with more of a chamber music sound that Head Over Heels becomes a delightful Elizabethan crossdressing romp in the style of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or As You Like It but with the songs of The Go-Go’s, a great many of whose lyrics are uncannily in sync with the emotions of this pastoral romance. Directed by Michael Mayer, the fine and tireless cast of seven backed by a singing and dancing ensemble of four men and four women are in tune with both the style and plot of this Elizabethan love story. In addition, the show marks the main stem debut of Peppermint, known to fans from RuPaul’s Drag Race, the first transgender woman to create a principal role in a Broadway show. Head Over Heels may also go down in history as the first pansexual musical including gay, bisexual, heterosexual and transgender characters in all sorts of combinations. The show is not for the very young as there are a great many double entendres and bawdy jokes intended for adults.
The new musical originally conceived and written by Jeff Whitty (bookwriter for Avenue Q) and adapted by James Magruder (librettist for the musical version of Marivaux’ 1732 Triumph of Love) is a streamlined, fairly faithful version of Sidney’s story with some fewer leading characters and much of the droll dialogue in iambic pentameter. King Basilius and Queen Gynecia are holding the annual feast and celebration of the flocks with the once-a-year opportunity to win the hand of the Princess Royal in marriage. However, for the fifth year in a row, Princess Pamela rejects all of the suitors as she has an undeclared yearning for Mopsa, her lady-in-waiting and daughter of Dametas, the King’s viceroy.
Just at this moment, a letter reveals that the god Zeus has appointed a new Oracle at Delphi, Pythio by name, who warns that Arcadia is in peril. King Basilius and Dametas travel to Delphi and meet the “non-binary plural” Pythio who makes four decrees:
“Thy younger daughter brings a liar to bed:
He thou shalt forbid; she he’ll then assume!
Thy elder daughter shall consent to wed;
She’ll consummate her love — but with no groom!
Thou with thy wife adult’ry shall commit.
This fourth and last prophecy is crucial:
You will meet and make way for a better King.”
Basilius decides to lie to his wife and not tell her of the Oracle’s prophecies but take the whole court to Bohemia to avoid the decrees. Of course, they all come true. As the court is leaving for their journey, the shepherd Musidorus, childhood playmate of Pamela’s young sister Philoclea, loving and beloved of her, asks for her hand in marriage, but is rejected by King Basilius as too far beneath their station. Musidorus decides to follow the procession and is intercepted by an emissary of Pythio who advises him to dress in some other garb so as not to be discovered and he turns himself into a beautiful blonde Amazon named Cleophilia. When he saves the king from a lion, “she” is asked to join their procession to Bohemia and the king, the queen and Philoclea (who doesn’t recognize her love) are all smitten with her, though the queen suspects that Cleophilia is other than who she says she is. This will lead to at least two of the prophecies coming true as well as paving the way for a third. All ends happily in the manner of true romances.
Aside from “We Got the Beat,” Head Over Heels includes 17 other of the Go-Go’s hit songs including “Get Up and Go,” “Vacation,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Lust to Love,” the title song, and two of Belinda Carlisle’s solo hits, “Mad About You,” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” Choreographer Spencer Liff has come up with some clever musical stagings: Musidorus’ “Mad About You” sung with the male ensemble as his sheep, Pamela’s “Beautiful,” danced by the four ladies of the ensemble holding frames for mirrors or paintings, Mopsa’s “Vacation,” sung on a solo trip to Lesbos performed with four mermaids in the sea, “Head Over Heels” at the top the second act which becomes a merry chase with all of the chracters trying to get to be alone with Musidorus/Cleophilia and “Heaven Is A Place on Earth” in which Queen Gynecia and King Basilius and two couples from the ensemble (seemingly in the nude) enact romantic trysts in silhouette from behind a white drop cloth representing a cave made for love.
The show makes a star of comic actor Andrew Durand, seen previously in War Horse and Spring Awakening, giving him a chance to sparkle as the cross-dressing quick thinking Musidorus who also makes a very pretty young lady as Cleophilia. Peppermint is a very glamorous Oracle of Delphi and demonstrates a rich throaty singing voice in “Visions of Nowness,” “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
Jeremy Kushnier, last seen as the film producer in Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour, is an amusingly pompous king who always seems to get found out, while Rachel York who won the Drama Desk Award for her role of Norma Cassidy, the ditzy moll in Victor/Victoria, is now the imperiously haughty Queen Gynecia.
After a series of well received Off Broadway musicals, Bonnie Milligan makes her Broadway debut as the over-the-top/plus size Princess Pamela who believes she is the world’s greatest beauty. As a contrast, Alexandra Socha sweetly underplays her younger sister Philoclea. Taylor Iman Jones plays the only serious character without any comic dimensions as Pamela’s love interest Mopsa. The storyline makes Tom Alan Robbins as her father’s Viceroy comically flustered most of the time.
Julian Crouch’s stylized Romanesque unit setting is beautifully lit in various hues by Kevin Adams. Arianne Phillips’ colorful and eclectic period costumes run the gamut from Elizabethan to later eras as well as dresses with lengths that would not be seen until the 20th century. Along with Kitt’s overly loud music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements, Kai Harada’s sound design is probably also guilty of miking for the wrong historic era. Campbell Young Associates’ hair and makeup design is a particularly notable aspect of the show.
Under Michael Mayer’s fast-paced direction, Head Over Heels starts badly and busily but eventually slows down to a delightful Elizabethan parody on love and gender. While not all of The Go-Go’s songs are suitable for the storyline and the period, enough of them fit perfectly to make this a superior light entertainment. The cast is first rate and may make stars of the ingenious Andrew Durand and the classy and stylish Peppermint. Aside from introducing The Go-Go’s song catalog to Broadway, Head Over Heels covers a great many firsts of all kinds.
Head Over Heels (through January 6, 2019)
Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 855-801-5876 or visit http://www.HeadOverHeelsTheMusical.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission