New York City Theater
"Head Over Heels"
Dopey and zany, funny and tuneful, “Head Over Heels” is about as batty an entertainment as may be had in these troubled times. The time-tripping new musical is based on a 16th-century play, takes place in Greece, has songs by the 80’s punk group, the Go-Go’s, and a contemporary yet oddly classical framework. Further, produced within an inch of tackiness, it doesn’t pretend to offer anything but a kickass time: an audience’s reaction is best served by an inverse ratio of expectation to accomplishment.
Following the basics of Sir Philip Sidney’s 1590 “The Arcadia,” the musical follows a king, his queen, their two daughters and assorted courtiers who escape the stuffy palace for a refreshing jaunt in the country. Searching for their threatened mojo (“We Got the Beat”), they eventually return to where they started. Having committed all sorts of indiscretions along the way, they’re no longer tradition bound.
Since it involves cross-dressing, prophecies and merry mix-ups, “Heels” will remind spectators of “Twelfth Night.” Ah, but there’s a crucial difference: going farther than that Shakespeare piece on matters involving same-sex relationships.
You know this isn’t Kansas anymore when Pythio, the Oracle at Delphi is played by Peppermint, a veteran of RuPaul’s Drag Race and, says the program, “the first transgender woman to create a principal role.” Hilariously sassy and campy, Peppermint rolls out her prophecies with assembly-line panache. “Heaven is a Place in Earth,” she sings, giving a goose to those who haven’t yet given up on finding worlds of acceptance.
It’s looking for one’s authentic self that permeates both Sidney’s Renaissance work and this musical, as conceived by librettist Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. There’s the bucolic shepherd who, disguised as a female Amazon, is a turn-on for all who come into view, including both king and queen. Add two daughters, one who finally finds her passion in an improbable partner, while her sibling goes full bore for someone not in her class.
Meanwhile, the hard-working ensemble, a mixed bag of sexes and sizes, executes Spencer Liff ‘s hot choreography with alacrity and good humor. Their quick changes into a variety of Arianne Phillips’ spiffy costumes conjure visions of controlled backstage chaos.
Julian Crouch’s cartoonishly flat scenery, as lit by the genius Kevin Adams’ multicolors, sets an artificial mood. Direction is by Michael (“Spring Awakening,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) Mayer whose eye for the musical’s combination of giddiness and pertinence does justice to the centuries-apart authors. (Try “ventilate the belfry of thy mind” or “no true paradise remains forever.”)
The cast throws itself into the plot with nary a hint of self-congratulation. Andrew Durand’s ambivalent shepherd, Jeremy Kushnier’s randy king, Rachel York’s discontented queen, Taylor Iman Jones’ cheerful seducer, Tom Alan Robbins’ harried viceroy, Alexandra Socha’s headstrong younger daughter and Bonnie Milligan’s merry older daughter are all unique comic creations.
Whatever obstacles spectators come in with should be dispelled by dippy numbers like “Vacation,” with its cardboard waves, nubile mermaids and flying fish. Or “Mad About You,” one of the productions catchiest tunes. At the curtain call, when the six-piece band is revealed, that they’re all female helps prove that “Head Over Heels,” retro as some of it is, won’t be cowed into conformity.
--David A. Rosenberg
August 7, 2018