The feeling of watching Cher kiss Meryl Streep on the lips has been captured on stage in the form of Head Over Heels. Opening Thursday at the Hudson Theatre, the show is a technicolor category unto itself: an Elizabethan-era romp set to the songs of The Go-Go’s. Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century prose poem The Arcadia, loosely adapted here as a jukebox musical, makes an unexpected match with the giddy hits of the history-making ‘80s girl group, but in this story, the most unexpected match is usually right.
The premise of the musical, if it even needs one, is this: Somewhere in a surreal stretch of the Tudor period, Arcadia is turned upside down when an oracle (RuPaul’s Drag Race star Peppermint, ethereal and commanding) foresees that the community will lose its beat, a sort of nourishing hand jive of the soul that serves as a paper-thin link to opening number “We Got the Beat.” It needs no further definition. The town’s stodgy king (Jeremy Kushnier) responds to the prophecy by dragging his family and his subjects on a journey meant to protect them, only to inadvertently expose them all to the unstoppable force of progress. Sexual hijinks ensue, in iambic pentameter.
The plot is so slight that it’s surprising when actual consequences come calling in Act 2, and that’s a compliment to Act 1: Frothy romantic entanglements are all the substance this comedy needs. Head Over Heels is packed with characters questioning their sexuality, a shepherd (Andrew Durand) donning drag to get the girl, and a powerful, gender-fluid soothsayer addressed by they/them pronouns. It can be a little distracting when the dialogue tries to double as LGBTQ 101, but it still feels like a divine post-Pride Month miracle that this show’s “Vision of Nowness” is not just to incorporate one or two LGBTQ characters but to foreground a whole host of people of varying identities. (Of note: Peppermint is the first openly trans woman to originate a principal role in a Broadway musical.) Even Spencer Liff’s kicky choreography, which may just be the glue holding the whole operation together, keeps pairing off ensemble members into same-sex couples. I was reminded of the new Queer Eye: The original series fought for tolerance, the intro tells us, but the reboot is fighting for acceptance. In Head Over Heels, there is a step beyond acceptance, and it’s the beat.
Directed by Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the joyful production dials the camp to 11; this is a show with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, except when it’s in someone else’s mouth. The best physical comedy falls to Durand, whose shepherd-in-disguise Musidorus finds himself the object of everyone’s affection. In one bit, Durand flits in delirious pantomime between playing the masculine suitor and the feminine seductress, poster child of a sexual awakening no one expected, least of all the shepherd himself.
Everyone in the charismatic cast gets (and milks) their moment in the spotlight, but Rachel York in particular makes for a delicious queen, and Bonnie Milligan quite literally chews scenery as Pamela, the king’s vain eldest daughter. Pamela also happens to be the bigger of the two siblings, and early dialogue veers too close to making a joke out of her self-esteem as she labels her sweet, delicate sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) the “plain” one. But as the script settles into a groove and Pamela discovers herself, her beauty becomes a fact universally accepted.
In keeping with the script’s tendency to break the fourth wall, Julian Crouch’s set design relies on traditional flats, giving the show a charming pop-up quality. Some musical numbers are staged like elevated vaudeville performances: “Vacation” places runaway handmaiden Mopsa (a lovely Taylor Iman Jones) on what might as well be a 1950s postcard of an island, and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” makes naughty use of shadows behind a simple sheet. The result is a production that feels as freewheeling and handcrafted as a local outdoor Shakespeare festival, which fits; the first version of the show debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015.
Head Over Heels’ journey to Broadway has been rocky: Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) created the original book for the Oregon production but resigned after clashing with Mayer. His script has since been significantly altered by James Magruder. The seams aren’t often visible in the final product — or maybe they’re just so built in to the fabric of a Shakespearean Go-Go’s musical that it doesn’t matter — but there are some weak spots. Socha, despite having one of the most captivating voices in the show, isn’t given much to do beyond looking doe eyed in various Disney princess poses. And a dramatic development late in Act 2 seems driven only by an obligation to do something, anything somber — at least until the story circles back around to an appropriately glittery resolution.
The marriage of Elizabethan collars and “Our Lips Are Sealed” makes for a confusing elevator pitch, but Head Over Heels finds their common ground: The show is an ode to female independence with the winking spirit of a Shakespearean fairy and the neon edge of a rebellious ‘80s teenager, teaming up to beckon people into the woods. Forty years after The Go-Go’s’ formation, Head Over Heels does more than preserve the band’s iconic hits in amber. For two hours and 15 minutes, it’s enough to pull the world back into sync. A-