Broadway’s latest jukebox musical is set to songs by the Go-Go’s and — somewhat surprisingly — it’s not about a group of young women seeking love and fame in Reagan-era, post-punk Los Angeles. You might have expected the producers to jerry-rig a trite, retro scaffolding that vaguely mirrored the iconic girl band’s trailblazing story. The creative team of Head Over Heels does go retro, but waaay retro, to achieve something rarer and wonderfully strange. They’ve found the Venn overlap among “We Got the Beat,” LGBTQ awakening, and Elizabethan allegory on humane statecraft.
Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) had long wanted to adapt Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia, a bonkers, five-book proto-novel from the 1580s that chronicled a king, an ominous oracle, a bed trick, and frustrated young lovers. Whitty found an unlikely excuse in this high-concept frolic, which started life at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. After show-doctoring and the addition of director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the piece now unfurls on Broadway as a polished yet touching fairytale rom-com that succeeds where so many catalogue tuners fail. Whitty’s book is silly and sweetly wise enough to transcend — nay, celebrate — the absurdity of Eighties pop in Elizabethan drag.
“Speak English, not eclogue,” goes an early wisecrack, which gets a laugh, even if the majority of audience members present don’t usually giggle at Early Modern Lit jokes. The dialogue is in iambic pentameter, a lilting mode that slides neatly into the bouncy Go-Go’s numbers and the occasional hit solo by lead singer Belinda Carlisle. I’m not going to argue that ditties such as “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” are examples of deathless songwriting, but damn if they don’t tickle the hippocampus of any kid who grew up on MTV when it was MTV. (Incidentally, if John Dowland is more your thing, consider how much the seventeenth-century lutenist has in common with the Go-Go’s universe: hidden passion, the melancholy of love, gossipy disapproval.)
For those who follow Broadway, Head Over Heels will seem like Something Rotten! borrowed teen angst from Spring Awakening and trans-themed fierceness from Hedwig. But it’s also a cautionary tale directed at our toxic-rightward-hetero times. King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) rules Arcadia as complacently as he lords it over his long-suffering wife, Gynecia (Rachel York, perfectly arch and tart), and daughters Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha). Vain and bossy Pamela is the “pretty” one, while shy and mild Philoclea is the universally proclaimed “plain” one. Despite the abundance of suitors ardently a-wooing (I found “shirtless, beruffed stud muffins” scribbled in my notes by way of description), Pamela isn’t interested. Convinced that a male heir is being delayed due to female conspiracy, Basilius consults the gender-neutral oracle Pythio (Peppermint, of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame) for advice. The monarch learns that one daughter will bed a liar, another will wed — but not a man, and the king’s wife will cuckold him. I haven’t even mentioned the tongue-tied shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand) loved by Philoclea, who’s scared off by the king and returns cleverly cross-dressed as an Amazon warrior.
That so much plot sits so lightly on the score is a testament to Whitty’s graceful book (adapted by James Magruder) and Tom Kitt’s elegant, rock-smart music direction. Spencer Liff’s twirl-tastic, high-kicking choreography keeps the bodies flowing, like club kids cutting a Renaissance galliard. The storybook sets by Julian Crouch (picturesque Roman ruins, giant snake messengers, flip-up mermaid tails) and the glam, transhistorical costumes by Arianne Phillips all contribute to a visual impact where goofiness and camp can still be artful and lovely to behold.
And looks — good, bad, deceiving, fleeting — are a great deal of what the show’s about. Speaking superficially, Milligan (as the “pretty” sister) is larger than the petite Socha (as the “plain” one), yet the show doesn’t make this into a joke, or turn its welcome inversion of typical Broadway-producer casting logic into a didactic point. (Milligan talked to Broadway.com earlier this week about being “a plus size actress getting to play the beautiful character where there’s nothing in the script about my size.”) Milligan simply, gorgeously, rules every scene she’s in, with a first-rate pop soprano and killer comic timing. In Head Over Heels, beauty is subjective and random, standards of desirability fluid and critiqued. When Pamela learns that her desires lean same-sexily, like toward her wry and sensible lady-in-waiting, Mopsa (a fabulous Taylor Iman Jones), it’s another reminder that we are all empty vessels into which love pours what juice it will.
There are gallons of insight smuggled into this giddy, liberated construction: the B-romance is a lesbian affair essentially given as much weight as that of Musidorus and Philoclea; the rebuke of patriarchy is righteous yet wrenching; and there’s a deep philosophical thread about the need to evolve past gendered, binary hierarchies. Shrewd, funny, sexy, and with a glorious beat, Head Over Heels will have you flipping for joy.