It’s really hard to laugh when somebody’s holding a gun to your head. That’s the way this Go-Go’s feels in “Head Over Heels,” an over-written, over-designed, and generally overdone production directed by Michael Mayer. From the sets and costumes to the performance style, the basic principle seems to be: Less is boring and more is never enough. Thanks, no doubt, to the Oracle of Delphi (played here by the impishly funny Peppermint), it’s a miracle that at least some of the wit in Jeff Whitty’s original book gets through.
The storyline is credited to Sir Philip Sidney, an Elizabethan sonneteer whose 180,000-word narrative poem, “The Arcadia,” inspired many other imitations. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If Shakespeare could crib from this rom-com material (see “As You Like It”), so can Whitty and James Magruder, who did the adaptation for this Broadway production.
And a cute story it is, too — young lovers losing one another in the woods, dallying with substitute lovers, but reuniting with their own true loves at the end. As Sir Philip and Shakespeare told it, the twinned lovers were all boys and girls. In this modern version the gender identities are much more fluid.
A lusty rendition of the Go-Go’s mega-hit, “We Got the Beat,” introduces us to the enchanted kingdom of Arcadia, where good King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier, nice baritone) and his faithful but bored wife, Gynecia (the divine Rachel York), have become sexually jaded. But just as the king and queen lose that loving feeling, their two daughters awaken to their own.
Bonnie Milligan, who originated this choice role at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, bubbles over with merriment (and manages to sustain it) as the generously endowed elder daughter, Princess Pamela. Convinced of her own ravishing beauty (“Beautiful”), the dear girl rejects all her suitors, which gives her parents grief but delivers a lot of laughs.
Meanwhile, her supposedly plain but actually lovely younger sister, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha, who sings sweetly and dares to play her role with subtlety), falls in love with a shepherd. Musidorus the shepherd isn’t much of a prize, but Andrew Durand knocks himself out trying, trying, trying.
Pamela and Philoclea obediently pack up and leave Arcadia with the rest of the court (“Get Up and Go”) when the king misrepresents a dire warning from the Oracle of Delphi. That’s Peppermint, who miraculously doesn’t smother in the voluminous costumes designed for her by Arianne Phillips. But once the entire court, which includes the king’s viceroy, Dametas (the ever-reliable Tom Alan Robbins), and his beautiful daughter, Mopsa (newcomer Taylor Iman Jones), are deep in the forest, there’s always the chance they’ll be swallowed up by the sets (Julian Crouch) or blinded by the lack of lighting (Kevin Adams). “Vacation” drowns Mopsa in kitsch as she makes her way to the Island of Lesbos through a sea teeming with mermaids. One pleasing example of all this garish excess: the Temple of the Oracle, which Andrew Lazarow has hung with really creepy projections of writhing serpents. (“Slither hither,” the Oracle invites us.)
At some point in this endless journey, the characters begin to evade the ever-encroaching sets and manage to fall in love, or something like it. Here, finally, some of the Go-Go’s songs actually fit into the book scenes. Pamela and Mopsa discover one another in “Automatic Rainy Day.” The king and queen rekindle their love in “This Old Feeling.” Philoclea opens her heart to Musidorus in “Here You Are.” And Peppermint leads the full company in a rendering of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” that’s worth the wait.
Coming as it does at the top of Act II, when everyone’s been on the road for so long they’ve all lost touch with the real world, the title song “Head Over Heels” actually makes sense. But the show never recovers from the pervasive feeling of exhaustion. There’s the exertion of making the stilted Spencer Liff choreography seem vaguely vogue. There’s the constant struggle to push and shove songs into places where they don’t fit. And then there’s the strain of re-configuring the character dynamics, fiddling with traditional gender distinctions until the show conforms to a woke notion of ideological transgression. A lot of push and pull goes into the work of making a musical — but this one shows the strain.