Summer is not officially the silly season on Broadway, but you might be forgiven for assuming so should you wander into the Hudson Theatre, where “Head Over Heels,” a fearlessly loopy new jukebox musical drawing on the back catalog of the Go-Go’s, has taken up residence. The musical features, among other woolly diversions, a shepherd who dresses in drag as an Amazon, a king tricked into committing adultery with his own queen (long story), a proud princess who discovers a Sapphic love for her servant, some singing sheep, and a Delphic oracle of nonbinary gender, addressed not as a “he” or a “she” but a “they.”
Why, you might well wonder, do kings and queens and Delphic oracles — all speaking in pseudo-Elizabethan language — suddenly descend into the far less formal lexicon of the late-20th-century pop song when the guitars start churning out the Go-Go’s riffs?
Well, as a character in “Head Over Heels” might say (not sing): Ask not why! For answers be there none. Or maybe the answer is, because it’s a jukebox musical, and questioning the logic of any such is a fool’s errand?
I first saw “Head Over Heels” when it had its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. Then, as now, I was rather charmed by the show’s venturesome conceit: Jeff Whitty, the Tony-winning book writer of “Avenue Q,” had the madcap notion of marrying a very loose adaptation of Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century prose romance “Arcadia” to the songbook of the 1980s pop-punk girl group known for such hits as “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Vacation.”
But I’m afraid that now, as then, the stylistic dissonance between the show’s book and its songs ultimately proves to be an insurmountable problem. While the book has many witty touches and whimsical delights, and the hit songs have a peppy nostalgic allure, book and score make for uncomfortable bedfellows. To borrow a lyric from the title tune: Try as they might, the show’s creators, who include the gifted director Michael Mayer, cannot keep this world from feeling — or reeling — out of sync.
Whitty, and James Magruder, who is credited with “adapting” Whitty’s original book (Whitty did not work on the Broadway production), freely scramble the identities of the characters and the sprawling plot of Sidney’s original, while hewing to the basic outline. Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier), king of the mythical Arcadia, and his queen Gynecia (Rachel York) have two daughters: the imperious, self-infatuated beauty Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and her younger, sweeter and wallflowery sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha).
Philoclea loves and is loved by a humble shepherd, Musidorus (Andrew Durand), but he is banished from her presence when he has the effrontery to claim his love before the king. Pamela, meanwhile, disdains all suitors and spends most of her time preening herself in the presence of her servant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), who secretly pines for her. As in a Shakespeare comedy, when the court leaves the kingdom to head to the more sylvan Bohemia – after the oracle, played by the transgender actress Peppermint (of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame), does their oracular thing, predicting calamity – discoveries are made, romances are tangled and untangled, and genders are (sorta) switched.
The veteran Mayer draws fresh, lively performances from the cast. As Musidorus, the goofily besotted shepherd, Durand gives a zesty and thoroughly winning turn. Thwarted in his love, Musidorus gamely plops on a blond wig and a bullet-breasted gold corset (think Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna) to disguise himself as that Amazon and insinuate himself into the royal household. As his would-be paramour Philoclea, Socha is among the show’s outstanding singers, and imbues her role with a wide-eyed, blooming innocence.
Playing the harrumphing, pride-puffed Pamela, Milligan earns laughs left and right, high and low (as when she recites a series of poems whose unspoken last rhymes indicate, amusingly if a bit vulgarly, her lesbian instincts). Peppermint makes for a suitably commanding oracle, and sings with flash and spirit, although her way with Whitty and Magruder’s cleverly turned, mock-Elizabethan language is not as supple as that of most of the other performers. Kushnier, as the oft-befuddled king, and York, as his oft-annoyed wife, make a nicely matched pair.
While Mayer and his high-spirited cast serve up the tasty mixture of lowdown comedy and highfalutin’ language commendably, there’s no escaping the herky-jerkiness of the transitions between book and songs. A few tunes fit comfortably enough into the plot: Musidorus declares his love singing “Mad About You” (technically not a Go-Go’s song, but a hit for the lead singer Belinda Carlisle); when the disguised Musidorus reveals himself to Philoclea, they break into “Our Lips Are Sealed,” knowing they must keep his identity secret; when Jones’s quietly ardent Mopsa flees her beloved Pamela and tries to salve her wounds with a visit to Lesbos (get it?), she breaks into “Vacation.” The small band, hidden behind the scenery — beautifully rendered flats from Julian Crouch that evoke neoclassical painting with supreme skill — makes a powerful sound under the ever-nimble music direction of Kimberly Grigsby. (The arrangements are by Tom Kitt.)
But for the most part, the songs seem to drift in from nowhere and lead nowhere, proving to be insubstantial interruptions or forgettable diversions. And while the Go-Go’s handful of hits are still appealing, the majority of the show’s songs will probably be unfamiliar to all but the band’s most ardent fans: do “Beautiful,” “Vision of Nowness,” “Automatic Rainy Day” or “Here You Are” mean anything to you? They didn’t to me, and neither they nor the dozen or so other lesser-known songs make a particularly strong impression. Even with the cast gyrating energetically to the music-video-style choreography of Spencer Liff — proving it’s possible to vogue in a tightfitting corset (do not try at home) — the musical interludes are mostly bouncy but vaporous.
Unfortunately, more vaporousness is the last thing this genially goofy but featherweight concoction needs.
“Head Over Heels” opened at the Hudson Theatre on Thurs. July 26, 2018.
Creative: Songs by The Go-Go’s; Conceived by Jeff Whitty; Book by Jeff Whitty; Book adapted by James Magruder; Based on ‘The Arcadia’ by Sir Philip Sidney; Music orchestrated by Tom Kitt; Directed by Michael Mayer; Choreographed by Spencer Liff; Scenic Design by Julian Crouch; Costume Design by Arianne Phillips; Lighting Design by Kevin Adams; Sound Design by Kai Harada.
Producers: Produced by Rick Ferrari, Donovan Leitch, Christine Russell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Louise Gund, Scott Sigman, Hunter Arnold, Tom Kirdahy, Jordan Roth, Julie Boardman, Vikram Chatwal, The John Gore Organization, NETworks Presentations, LLC, Robert Kravis, Art Lab, LLC, Carrie Clifford, Eric Cornell, Adam Gorgoni, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Dr. Michael Mintz, Mara Burros-Sandler and Van Horn Doran Group
Cast: Andrew Durand, Taylor Iman Jones, Jeremy Kushnier, Bonnie Milligan, Peppermint, Tom Alan Robbins, Alexandra Socha, Rachel York, Amber Ardolino, Yurel Echezarreta, Ari Groover, Tanya Haglund, Gregory Liles, Samantha Pollino, Justin Prescott, Ricardo A. Zayes.