New wine is being poured into old bottles on and Off Broadway. I’m not sure when Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, written sometime before Manhattan was a thing, was last tackled on our stages, but here it is again–in somewhat revised form. Taking top billing this incarnation is the supergroup The Go-Gos, whose hits from the 80s, when New Wave was a thing, give Head Over Heels its backbone. This is one of the more out-there concepts for a jukebox musical, a form that’s hard to get right (for every Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys that hits, there’s a Lennon, Ring of Fire, The Times They Are A-Changin’, etc., that doesn’t), but amidst an unusually robust summer for Broadway openings it mostly works as breezy entertainment.
After a convoluted production history that started at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival three years ago (and lost original adaptor Jeff Whitty, of Avenue Q fame, in the process) what’s playing at the Hudson is the work of Spring Awakening personnel including director Michael Mayer, choreographer Spencer Liff, lighting designer Kevin Adams, and some of the cast. The shows are similar, in that we get some form of the original story as book, interspersed with rockin’ tunes that bring the text up to date. The seams do show from time to time: for dramatic reasons Sir Philip could not have envisioned, one character, the romantically frustrated Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), goes on vacation, cueing, what else, “Vacation.” Narrative poems are hard; jukebox musicals, harder still.
Mopsa’s just one of the characters with a “lust to love” in Head Over Heels. Taking my cue from the show, which just goes with it, I’ll keep the plot summary brief. The kingdom of Arcadia, you see, runs on “the beat,” which is being siphoned off by Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi (played by Peppermint, the first transgender woman to headline a Broadway show). Pythio has their reasons, which the king, Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier), must divine, or forfeit the land. Everyone else has heartache: the lonely queen, Gynecia (Rachel York), their daughters, plumply entitled Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and shyly beautiful Philoclea (Alexandra Socha); viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins) and his daughter, Mopsa, Pamela’s handmaiden. A handsome if befuddled shepherd, Musidorus (Andrew Durand), winds up getting everyone’s goat, as relationships across the rainbow are forged in an open-minded, musical-comedy way. Go-Gos diehards who blame her for the group’s fall will be appalled that the show has raided Belinda Carlisle’s catalog as well, but Head Over Heels must assure us that “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”
Or at least, the Hudson Theatre, for a couple of blissfully silly hours. It’s hard to believe that Kushnier, the Ren of the Footloose musical, is now running a kingdom, but he and York, musical theatre royalty, got the beat. So does Durand, a pleasantly goofy hunk for his co-stars to fall for, and fall over. There’s not a weak link in the entire cast, even if Peppermint’s part, that of the magical LGBTQ person of color, is fairly stock (see also Kinky Boots). Give Head Over Heels a chance to woo you (the finger-snapping choreography and fairytale sets are part of its charm offensive) and you’re sure to “Get up and Go.” Sir Philip Sidney might even approve.
Three more nights to see Twelfth Night at Shakespeare in the Park, so line up. The ninety-minute distillation of a play that makes Head Over Heels look like a model of narrative clarity is a genuine NYC happening, the happiest night I spent this summer. All credit due its fast-rising composer (and Feste), Shaina Taub, who, with co-directors Kwame Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis, has conceived of a truly delirious Illyria, bursting with zydeco, blues, and show tunes. Tony winners Nikki M. James (Viola) and Shuler Hensley (Sir Toby Belch) lead the ensemble, with a marvelous Malvolio (Andrew Kober) bringing down the house with the show’s equivalent of Jesus Christ Superstar‘s “King Herod’s Song.”
But the true star of the show, breathing new life into Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identities and dueling agendas, is New York, via the company’s Public Works program. The Public has been engaging with community groups like the Brownsville Recreation Center, Military Resilience Foundation, and Children’s Aid for several years, and here they all are, onstage at the Delacorte, harmonizing with the Bard and some of the city’s great musical theater talents. This Twelfth Night is a romp, but it’s also a testament to the spirit of my fellow residents, and I was completely moved by its spectacle of kinship. Play on!
Speaking of musicals: Pretty Woman, the last of the summer openers, now on Broadway.