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A CurtainUp Review
Head Over Heels
By Elyse Sommer
This week marked the opening of two new productions of these songwriter tribute shows. Off Broadway saw a terrifically entertaining revival of Smokey Joe's Cafe, which exemplifies the genre's earliest and purest format: just the songs without any attempt to add a story line. Head Overer Heels now at Broadway's big, elegant Hudson Theatre, pays tribute to the 1980s all female punk rockers, the Go-Go's and is in fact named for one of their songs. But it is very much a book musical. Instead of basing that book on the biographies of the songwriters being honored — like Jersey Boys and Beautiful— Head Over Heels uses the Mamma Mia approach of framing the songs with a regular libretto style narrative.
The story in this case is an adaptation of a prose piece by 16th Century literary man named Sir Philip Sidney that was dramatized as The Arcadia. It's got as many, if not more, love triangles, mistaken identities and convoluted plot twists than any of Shakespeare's plays: a kingdom in trouble, king and queen at odd with each other, a beautiful and not so beautiful princess, a prophesy of doom.
The result is one of the most elaborately staged jukebox musicals you're likely to ever have seen. Yet, whether you're a Go-Go fan or not, what you're most like to go ga-ga over in here are the sets and costumes and — and the talent on board to sing, dance and act out this campy mash-up of a Shakespeare-like farce and the Go-Go's 1980s e rock music.
Even as you take your seat the double proscenium — a red curtained one inside a pale blue one embedded with angels and royal crests indicate that what you're about to see will be lavish. And is it ever.
Set designer Julian Crouch just keeps the spectacular visuals coming, all brilliantly lit by Kevin Adams. It takes lots of energy for the actors playing the principal characters and the 8-member ensemble of royal courtiers to keep changing into the Arianne Phillips's colorful mix of then-and-now costumes. They need even more to execute Spencer Liff's sprightly choreography. The small all-female on stage band, invisible except for a brief glimpse at the beginning and end, commendably gives fans and Go-Go newbies a chance to hear the music without drowning out all the lyrics.
As adapted by James Magruder and directed by Michael Mayer this Shakespeare-like farce rocked by the Go-Go's music is certainly a new take on this ever popular format. Coming to Head Over Heels without knowing much about their music, I can't say it made me ga-ga about this songbook by the time I left. The songs are ear pleasing and easy enough to like but somehow fail to make a really memorable impression. However, what does impress is the way director, adapter and choreographer have managed to shoe-horn the songs into this Elizabethan romance so that the spoken interchanges that are mostly in iambic pentameter while the Go-Go lyrics unchanged.
Unless you're locked into the idea that every song must advance the plot. Silly as this plot is, it works quite well and amusingly with the selected songs written by the band as a group and solo by their lead singer Belinda Carlisle. Enough of their tunes were about romantic happiness and unhappiness to allow Magruder and Meyer to link them effectively to this jukesialized adaptation.
The biggest Go-Go hit, "We've Got the Beat," is astutely used to represent the magical power that an Oracle named Pythus phrophesies they'll loose unless they make some major changes — to wit, becoming a less homophobic, convention-bound kingdom. If only adapter Magruder and director Mayer didn't push this theme of tolerance about sexual identity and relationships quite so hard for an audience that's mostly embraced it already.
But to get back to the many ga-ga aspects of Head Over Heels. . .
Who could want a more intriguing Pythus than the dynamo transgender performer, Peppermint? As for Arcadia's king Basilius and Queen Gynecia, Rachel York and Jeremy Kushnier are well matched as the less than happily wed royals. The casting of Bonnie Milligan (in a breakthrough Broadway debut) as the Princess Pamela and Alexandra Socha as her younger sister Princess Philoclea nicely embody the differences in these sisters who are the same in that both upend their parents' expectations for them. Both have powerhouse vocals.
Tom Alan Robbins and Taylor Iman Jones whose characters add further to the various romantic mixups. And if I had to single out the show's best farceur, it would take just a second to pick Andrew Durand. If awards voters still remember the show next year, he'll surely be nominated as best actor in a musical.
Some 30 producers (including Gwyneth Paltrow) have put the best that money can buy into this show. It remains to be seen whether it wil help to persuade theater goers that Head Over Heels elevates the jukebox musical to Pythos's "Vision of Newness."
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Head Over Heels
Songs by the Go-Gos
Based on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
Conceived and originated by Jeff Whitty
Adapted by James Magruder
Music Supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Tom Kitt
Musical Director: Kimberly Grigsby
Choreography by Spencer Liff
Directed by Michael Mayer
Music by all female rock band, the Go-Go
Cast (principal actors inalphabetical order): Andrew Durand (Musidorus), Taylor Iman Jones (Mopsa), Jeremy Kushnier (Basilius), Bonnie Milligan (Pamela), Peppermint (Pythio ),Rachel York (Gynecia), Tom Alan Robbins (Dametas).Alexandra Socha (Philoclea), Tom Alan Robbins (Dametas).
Scenic Design by Julian Crouch
Costume Design by Arianne Phillips
Lighting Design by Kevin Adams
Sound Design by Kai Harada
Hair and Makeup Design by Campbell Young Associates
Projection Design by Andrew Lazarow
Production Stage Manager: Lisa Iacucci
Stage Manager: Rick Steiger
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with 1 intermission
Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street
From 6/23/18; opening 7/26/18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/25/18 press matinee
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