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Broadway Review: Go-Go’s Musical ‘Head Over Heels’

Graft some hits from the Go-Go’s songbook onto an Elizabethan prose poem and you get a lot of silly stuff.

Andrew Durand, Taylor Iman Jones, Jeremy Kushnier, Bonnie Mulligan, Peppermint, Tom Alan Robins, Alexandra Socha, Rachel York.

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.

Broadway Review: Go-Go's Musical 'Head Over Heels'

Hudson Theater; 960 seats; $149. Opened July 26, 2018. Reviewed July 24. TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Christine Russell, Louise L. Gund, Donovan Leitch, Rick Ferrari, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scott Sigman, Hunter Arnold, Tom Kirdahy, Jordan Roth, Julie Boardman, Broadway Strategic Return Fund, Vikram Chatwal, John Gore Organization, Networks Presentations, Insurgent Media, Robert Kravis, Art Lab, LLC, Marc Bell, Mara Burros-Sandler, Carrie Clifford, Eric Cornell, Adam Gorgoni, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Marguerite Hoffman, Dr. Michael Mintz, Sandi Moran, Paramount Pictures, Van Horn Doran Group, Jonathan & Nancy Glaser / Lucy Fato & Matthew Detmer of a musical in two acts with songs by The Go-Go’s, conceived and written by Jeff Whitty, based on “The Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney, adapted by James Magruder, and originally produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Creative: Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreographed by Spencer Liff. Music supervision, orchestrations & arrangements, Tom Kitt. Sets, Julian Crouch; costumes, Arianne Phillips; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Andrew Lazarow; hair & makeup, Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager, Lisa Iacucci.

Cast: Andrew Durand, Taylor Iman Jones, Jeremy Kushnier, Bonnie Mulligan, Peppermint, Tom Alan Robins, Alexandra Socha, Rachel York.

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  1. I only read this review out of curiosity because I recently had the pleasure of seeing this show. I wondered what the critics were saying and was completely surprised that not only did this critic hate it but did a horrible job writing about it. This has to be one of the worst and most boring reviews I’ve ever read. Sometimes, even though I disagree with a review or critique, it’s at least full of valid points, clever comparisons and interesting to read. Enough about the very long and disappointing review, I want to share my experience at “Head Over Heels”. I am not a theatre person or an authority of any kind. I simply love art in almost all of its expressions. This has been one of the most clever, entertaining all inclusive, culturally relevant reflection of our society in theatre today. I imagine “Rent” had a similar impact in the 90’s. One of my favorite elements of the production was the powerful presence of Mopsa, beautiful, strong and confident challenging anyone’s conventional perception of what defines beautiful. The symbiotic relationship between The GoGo’s and “Head Over Heals” allowed each to elevate the other and imprint their relevance The entire show was a humorous, kind and gentle invitation for the audience to eliminate judgements and boundaries.

  2. This show was one of the freshest, most clever things I have ever seen on Broadway, combining the Shakespeare-esque tropes of mistaken identity and mistaken gender with hits and catalogue material from a all-female band famous for their 1980s hits and managing to tell a story that is 100% percent contemporary. Sure, when it starts out, you’re like “WTF??” but it doesn’t take long before you are along for the ride and it’s so funny, smart, fun and well-performed. I took my mother- and father-in-law (against my will) to see the Donna Summer musical and it was SO BAD; afterwards, I complained about the lack of imagination, poor writing and blatant tourist trap that the show was. “Head Over Heels” is everything that so much of Broadway has forgotten: ballsy, different and fresh. I loved it.

  3. WOW! What can I say!
    My experience could not have been different! I felt as though Andrew Durand did an exceptional job! Funny – Uplifting – Effortless yet fierce in all around character. Great bounce of comedic timing, physical comedy and gestures which perfectly melded with the voice of the show.
    The entire cast was fun and energetic- The Choreography was so on point! The lighting design, Set, and Music were all delightful and upbeat and wonderfully campy by design! Peppermint was delightful! Great voices!
    Costumes were marvelous and fun!
    Overall melded Upbeat – RELEVANT – Outgoing – Modern and Fun Experience!
    Baaaah Humbug – Marilyn – I think Ewe missed the entire point of a wonderful ensemble and talented production with a lot of heart.

  4. This show is a must see! Endless wit and humor while beautifully delivering weighty multidimensional messages of love acceptance and forgiveness (as noted by others here). The performances characterized as “timid and awkward” are anything but! Rather, deliberate and finessed, they capture the fragility embodied by complex questions of self discovery, orientation and navigating through them and embracing hurdles presented by other cherished loves we hold so dear. I loved every bit of it- the story, the issues, music, nostalgia, beautiful sets and costumes and all around amazing talent. Many praises to all involved – thank you for this uplifting and poignant work much needed in a devolving time marked by one-dimensional thought leaders.

  5. This reads like you were at a different show than I attended. I loved Head Over Heels in every way. I highly recommend it. This terrific new musical featured fabulous dancing, amazing costumes, talented acting and a story line that will educate audiences of all ages while teaching about individuality and love. You will dance and shimmy in your seat, smile with delight and leave happily ever after.

    • Reading this comment motivated me to Google the Go-Go’s backstory and I found out the Belinda Carlisle was the original drummer for the Germs! I had no idea. Anyway, the REAL Go-Go’s story would be pretty sordid, since they were basically feral kids in the punk scene and did A LOT of drugs; heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, you name it, except oddly they were against pot because they thought that was the drug of the “dirty hippies”, lol. theguardian.com/music

  6. I thought this show was really fun. I have never felt so amped up in a theatre before. I won’t forget this musical. It sends a good message about accepting others no matter who they love. I left feeling great. I want to see it again.

  7. ABBA started this “turn our back catelog to a play” business, right? Or was it U2? Couldn’t we do this with worthier bands? My own vote would be bands like Sleep or Boris, but even a Talking Heads play would be better than the Go-Go’s. It’s not like anyone is asking for a stage adaptation of “My Sharona”.

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