Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in the elevator where Jeff Whitty, best known for a musical about the neuroses of New York Muppets, originally pitched the idea for Head Over Heels: “It’s an Elizabethan pastoral sex-romp jukebox musical — no, wait, hear me out! It’s based on Philip Sidney’s 16th-century prose closet drama The Arcadia. Oh, you don’t know it? That’s too bad, it’s one of my favorites, written in the Hellenistic mode, really all over the place, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral — no, please! Don’t get out, I’ll buy you coffee. It’s, uh, it’s got princesses! And prophesy! And cross-dressing! And it’s very public-domain. And the music, I almost forgot, the music will all be the Go-Go’s!”
I imagine this is exactly how it went down, given Whitty’s “Conceived & Original Book by” credit in the Head Over Heels program. Now, however many years and sparkly doublets later, I’m just happy that whoever was in that elevator decided to go for the coffee. And for the play. If the premise of Head Over Heels sounds a little nutso, that’s because the show is a lot nutso, in the most delightfully daffy, exuberantly heart-open way. It’s an often clever, always loving send-up of our lasting penchant for the theatrical age of poetry and pumpkin pants, and a mischievous, meaningful twist on the Elizabethan era’s obsession with gender-play. In other words, Head Over Heels is joyfully queering the canon (which isn’t all that straight to begin with) and throwing a heady, hearty party while it’s at it.
As befits a story about transformation, the show has seen a fair bit of shapeshifting. It began its life at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and in its earliest incarnations—according to one of its stars, the marvelous Bonnie Milligan—“it wasn’t even in iambic pentameter.” The current Broadway version has been adapted into florid, funny verse by James Magruder—a dramaturg and scholar who has adapted Marivaux, Molière, Gozzi, and more—and is now under the direction of Michael Mayer, whose credits include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, American Idiot, and Spring Awakening. The pair have worked together in the realm of disguises and dactyls before—on the 1997 musical adaptation of the French farce The Triumph of Love—and the collaboration is a fun one, yielding a combination of erudite silliness and unflagging pop-punk energy, here amped up to 11 by a truly awesome all-female band (conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, with bang-up orchestrations by Tom Kitt) and by the flat-out fabulous choreography of Spencer Liff. When I saw the show, the audience was already cheering as the 2-D painted red curtain rose on Julian Crouch’s charming classical picture book of a set to reveal the first tableau. It’s the kind of stage picture that gives you an immediate jolt of aesthetic pleasure: the whole cast—decked out in Arianne Phillips’s freely fanciful, and truly fantastic, riffs on 16th-century finery—arranged down a long table like a bunch of preening, candy-colored chess pieces, silhouetted by Kevin Adams’s jewel-toned party lights, with the opening crescendo of “We Got the Beat” thumping in the background. It all gives you a bubbly, ready-to-snort-Pixy-Stix-and-headbang feeling perhaps best summed up, in rather Elizabethan fashion at that, by the Ramones: Hey ho! Let’s go!
And go we do, to the kingdom of Arcadia, where life is pretty sweet for the self-satisfied King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier), his eyebrow-arching wife Gynecia (Rachel York), and his two daughters, the gentle waif Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) and the world-renowned beauty Pamela (Milligan). As they and the gyrating ensemble explain to us, Arcadia is a land of glorious order, where everything goes right thanks to the all-powerful beat. “We heed its rhythm and follow its form,” they declare between swells of the Go Go’s’ hit. “[The beat] keeps us in line and dictates the norm.” It’s a little bit Dr. Seuss, a little bit rock and roll, and it’s enough to set up the play’s eventual trajectory: Arcadia’s addiction to unquestioned, orderly norms will have to encounter a little healthy chaos. Safe and dependable as it is, their Beat will need to take a beating.
So, as seems to be the tradition when trouble’s coming to paradise, enter a snake. In this case, a really big one, dropping in hilariously from the flies to deliver a summons from the Delphic oracle, Pythio, to the king. (Prophets, it seems, don’t use the postal service.) Upon visiting Pythio (RuPaul’s Drag Race alumna Peppermint, breaking ground as the first transgender woman to originate a principal role on Broadway), Basilius gets some unsettling predictions: His daughters, it seems, will take unacceptable lovers, he and his wife will both commit adultery, and he’ll be replaced by a new and better king. Worst of all, when all this comes to pass, Arcadia’s beat will cease, causing a “permanent distemperature” in which the Earth stands still, one half freezing in darkness and the other scorched by the sun (so, basically, this episode of Futurama). What’s a hidebound, arrogant monarch to do? Well, clearly conceal the prophecy from his family and set about trying to avoid its outcome. But, in the wry words of Dametas, the king’s loyal but skeptical viceroy (Tom Alan Robbins with an amusing medieval man-bob), trying to cheat the Oracle of Delphi “is not, historically speaking, a wise move.” And, as Dametas’s daughter, Pamela’s knowing lady-in-waiting Mopsa, observes, “A man oft meets his destiny on the same road he takes to avoid it.”
Mopsa, who’s vain and nasty in the Elizabethan source material, has been given a smart character overhaul: Here she’s the most self-aware figure on stage, the archetype of the wise and wily servant, played with great charm by Taylor Iman Jones. Mopsa’s vanity has been shifted to Pamela, to hilarious effect. “In truth, I am not vain; I am objective!” insists Pamela as she clucks over her sister Philoclea’s “stunningly routine appearance.” Milligan is a geyser of irresistible charisma: She rattles the walls every time she sings, and in one monster of a solo, “How Much More,” she throws a royal temper tantrum that leaves the stage in shambles, then takes a pert little breath and hiccups, “Now that I’ve shown my vulnerable side, I’ll exit.” The exit, like pretty much everything Milligan does, gets delighted applause, and she deserves it. Not only is she a killer singer; she’s got the comic chops to send an audience into hysterics with a line like “Please ventilate the belfry of thy mind” — not exactly a screamer on paper.
Milligan is also the only original cast member still with Head Over Heels, rocking out in a role that Jeff Whitty created with her in mind. And she’s a big woman who’s playing the most sought-after princess in the land, who looks and sounds sensational as she shrugs off pesky suitors and belts out the modesty-defying number “Beautiful.” She is, and it’s a thrill to watch her.
Of course, while Pamela’s absolutely fabulous, she’s also a little confused. There’s a reason she keeps turning down the princes who try for her hand, a reason that becomes pretty clear when a shepherd named Musidorus (the endearingly doofy Andrew Durand) shows up in drag as a platinum blonde Amazon warrior named Cleophila. “But to say thy name / Doth make my body tingle down to parts / Uncharted until now,” sighs Pamela upon meeting the Amazon. But Musidorus—that is, Cleophila—loves Sister #2, Philoclea, and he’s more enthusiastic than he is creative: He needs a nudge from Pythio to come up with the plot to pursue his love in a gender-swapped disguise, but the super subtle new name—“’Tis… um… Cleo-Phila, Philoclea”—is all his own invention. The scene where Pythio prompts Musidorus to disguise himself in order “to win Philoclea and moreover save her family” is an unabashed riot: The shepherd plucks his woman’s weeds from a dusty trunk adorned by the skeletons of a dead theater troupe, “starved for lack of Serious Message.” Shuddering, Musidorus turns to us solemnly: “O ’tis a cruel business, that, and glad / Am I that I did not that life pursue.”
Durand is wonderfully guileless during these moments of theatrical wink-nudgery, which in themselves are spritely little gestures at the Shakespearean fashion for har-haring at one’s own position as an actor in a play. And he’s immense fun to watch as the not-particularly-femme Cleophila, whose presence, like a much more wholesome Dr. Frank-N-Furter, manages to throw the whole Arcadian court into a tumult of sexual longing. As Pamela, Basilius, and Gynecia all make eyes at the blonde bombshell during the lusty, percussive “Cool Jerk,” it’s not hard to see how Pythio’s double-tongued prophecies will all come to pass.
Part of the appeal of Head Over Heels is that while it’s got Broadway sparkle to it, it depends almost entirely on its ensemble to generate its goofy, big-hearted brand of magic. Yes, there’s some fun stage trickery (I particularly enjoyed watching Andrew Lazarow’s projections color in portions of the illustrative, toy theater-like set), but this is a show powered not by glitzy technical fireworks but by all-out singing, top-notch dancing, and a cast who’s clearly having oodles of fun with the zany tale they’ve set out to tell. One of the most famous songs in the production, Belinda Carlisle’s crazy-catchy solo hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” plays out during a scene of winningly low-fi scenic shenanigans: a bed trick whose sexy misidentifications we get to witness through shadow play on an enormous sheet. Earlier, during the plaintive “Vacation,” feelingly sung by Jones, Mopsa sits alone on the Isle of Lesbos (don’t ask how she got there) pining for her one true love, Princess Pamela, while the ensemble bobs up behind blue silk waves sporting colorful swimsuits and two-dimensional mermaid tails. A dream-Pamela herself even makes an appearance for a moment, floating into view like Venus on a cut-out version of Botticelli’s giant clamshell. Mayer is keeping the play playful, riffing ingeniously on devices that are more imaginative than illusionistic. Sheets, shadows, cardboard cutouts — yes, he’s got the Broadway version of them, but they’ve still got a feeling of enchanting simplicity to them, and rather than obscuring Mayer’s exceptional actors, they empower them, like a troupe of undaunted kids playing the world’s wackiest game of dress-up.
It’s probably not a spoiler to say that things work out in the end for the baffled and beguiled residents of Arcadia. But they’ve got to go through some growing pains first — especially Basilius, whose patriarchal pride and “archaic, inflexible rule” eventually pinpoint him as the play’s true, if unwitting, antagonist. But the universe of Head Over Heels is a forgiving one, a world where love of all stripes truly does conquer all, and despite doing some real violence before the play is through, Basilius is shown mercy. “Under my supervision,” says Gynecia to her chastened husband, “I predict a gentler man will over time evolve.” She’s not just talking about Basilius: In Head Over Heels, the future isn’t female per se, but it’s definitely not male either. Where gender, love, and governance are concerned, the future is free — free of the old definitions, the old order, the old beat. The straight-and-narrow path is a big fat dead end, and if the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, Head Over Heels joyously insists that it keep bending.
Head Over Heels is at the Hudson Theatre.