Not that Head Over Heels, directed with a warm, zany energy by Michael Mayer, is a conventional jukebox musical following the rise, success, splintering and later reuniting of the group itself.
Instead, in Jeff Whitty’s creation (he wrote the original book, adapted later by James Magruder), the songs of the The Go-Go’s are threaded through an Elizabethan romance based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney written near the end of the 16th century.
After a blur-of-arms-and-legs start with the company singing and dancing to ‘We Got The Beat,’ it takes a jolting moment for the period dress and ‘why prithee, sir’-style rhyming verse to cohere.
But patience: Head Over Heels is a raucously choreographed (by Spencer Liff) joy—intelligent, winningly comic, and surprisingly-for-Broadway radical when it comes to its presentation of gender and sexuality, with its central love story a lesbian one.
This is a mainstream musical with a tunefully, proudly queer heart, featuring former Ru Paul's Drag Race contestant Peppermint, the first transgender woman to originate a principal role in a Broadway musical.
Head Over Heels was first performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then at San Francisco’s Curran before coming to Broadway. Some of the characters remain from Sidney’s original, some elements of their stories remain, others are excised and the story modernized. Traditional iambic pentameter sits alongside modern smarts and snarks.
Welcome, then, to Arcadia where the king, Basilius (a stoutly patriarchal, inevitably foolish Jeremy Kushnier), is warned by the oracle Pythio (Peppermint) that the worst thing possible could happen—that the beat may end in Arcadia—if three prophecies Pythio provides come to pass. The king will also be supplanted.
The solution, Basilius discerns, is to head out on the road to identify and kill his potential usurper, taking the queen, Gynecia (Rachel York), and their daughters Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) with them. Also along for the ride: Dametas, the king’s viceroy (Tom Alan Robbins), and his daughter Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), who is Pamela’s lady-in-waiting. Pining after Philoclea is shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand).
The first bit of radicalism: the heart of the show, and featuring the most inventive use of Go-Go’s songs, is the romance of Pamela and Mopsa. Milligan is extremely funny as the vain and selfish daughter, who absolutely believes in her own beauty and her right to have anything, and anyone, she wants. “There must be more to life than husbandry,” she says.
When summarizing in a poem what she wants, those very physical qualities —in their modern-day words—keep forming the inevitable, never-spoken end of the verses, from ‘tits’ to the c-word. Pamela and Mopsa sing ‘Automatic Rainy Day’ as they tetchily work out what they feel for one another.
Feeling rejected, Mopsa heads off to Lesbos, the perfect setting for ‘Vacation,’ with other female members of the ensemble playing leaping fish, in colors and setting reminiscent of the all-female colorfully attired waterskiiers from the Go-Gos’ song of the same name. Reunited later, ‘Turn To You’ forms Pamela and Mopsa's perfect love song.
The casting of Milligan is another welcome first. She is not a conventionally pencil-thin lead actress, yet we are only encouraged to laugh at her character’s vanity in and of itself, not as it relates to audience preconceptions around her body. Pamela's spiky putdowns to her sister Philoclea remain on-point even after she’s become a more open-hearted person. She will always be plain, Pamela insists, with a sympathetic smile.
Milligan’s most glorious moment comes, when furious at everything, she destroys the stage while singing ‘How Much More,’ her volcanic anger temporarily, comically abating as she considers what she should do with the vulnerable contents of a bird cage.
With Pamela and Mopsa, the musical, without resorting to pamphleteering, sketches a coming out to oneself, a falling in love, a fear of being open, and then finally, the joy of openness and acceptance. That sounds very right-on. The musical is far from it.
As Peppermint told the Guardian, “It’s got all the isms. But for every issue it takes on, there are 10 or 20 laughs.”
Its central hetero romance, itself displaced as the show's focus, is given a gender-blurring sheen. Men dressing as women is nothing new—see Shakespeare—and here, in order to win his beloved Phlioclea, Musidorus dresses as an Amazon warrior he names Cleophila.
Japes and mistaken identity ensue, but even when all is resolved, he tells his future in-laws that he will keep his female attire; his female alter ego is part of him and he embraces her. His hetero-manhood will be the stronger for it. “Disguised as she I found the she in me, And I'll include then he with she, and thus A son and daughter both to you I'd be, A Musidorus in totality.”
The audience also relishes the lines the glitteringly attired Peppermint delivers to a confused Basilius, a king who initially cleaves to convention.
“Art thou man or woman?” he asks.
“How is gender germane to the discussion?” they (Pythio’s pronoun of choice) responds, and sings ‘Vision of Nowness’ as a non-binary celebrating anthem. "Thou better workest," Pythio instructs.
Pythio’s prophecies sound too incredible to be executed. “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. You will meet and make way for a better King.”
The fun of Head Over Heels is seeing the all-too plausible contortions of the plot to make all this come to pass, alongside the expert deployment of the Go-Go’s anthems. Even the music between songs is Go-Gos-sourced; a heartbeat take their cue from Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Mad About You,’ which Musidorus sings in full with his flock of sheep played by male members of the ensemble, who change ‘you’ to ‘ewe.’
When something shocking happens, the lights cut out, and a multi-colored spotlight illuminates a character’s face, with a thunderous snap of ‘Skidmarks on My Heart.’
Inevitably Carlisle’s huge solo hit, ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth,’ receives the most complex staging, playing out as a full-on shadow screen orgy.
Here the king and queen are reunited with each other, though both thinking they are strangers, as Queen Gynecia later admits; York plays with her with a cold imperiousness barely disguising an instinct for ribald mischief.
The musical plays with stage conventions, subverts them, jokes about subverting them, and then plonks a reprise of ‘Mad About You’ as a knee-slapping final treat for us.
But Head Over Heels' message-in-farewell is as timely and seriously meant in 2018 America as the show’s display of trans and LGBT pride.
“No true paradise in place remains forever,” Gynecia recalls Pythio saying. “We must craft a beat anew from our hearts Within, and let a new Arcadia Commence—one more tolerant and generous.” This wonderful, exuberant musical enjoins us to unseal our lips and fight for just that.
Head Over Heels is at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, NYC, booking to June 30, 2019.