The area of intersection between fans of iambic pentameter and doers of the “Cool Jerk” may be a limited one, so you can imagine the initial chore in store for anyone charged with targeting the exact crossover audience that will most enjoy “Head Over Heels,” now and maybe forever to be popularly known as “that Go-Go’s musical produced by Gwyneth Paltrow.” Rather than being a “Jersey Boys”-style origin story about the pioneering all-female band, the story harks back to very olde England, with a cast of royal-court types offering intermittently Elizabethan-sounding dialogue between all the rocking out. Surely “Thy Lips are Sealed” popped up at some point on a list of discarded alternate titles.
The mix of ’80s music and 1680s setting is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and that’s a good thing, for the most part. Perhaps appropriately for a show whose themes end up having mostly to do with 21st-century tolerance, “Heels” requires some tolerance of its own — for the rude juxtapositions of tones and centuries and, maybe most transgressively, the commingling of the Go-Go’s song catalog with Belinda Carlisle’s. If you can brook all that, there’s a good chance you’ll come out of the theater deeply giddy.
The show could also be subtitled “A Very LGBT Thing Happened on the Way to the Masque” (masque as in 17th century court performance, and Masque as in the Hollywood punk club where the Go-Go’s learned their chops — take your pick). That’s one juxtaposition that’s really anything but odd, since the Go-Go’s and Carlisle have ended up amassing a huge gay fan base over their decades of breaking up and reuniting. The plot of “Head Over Heels” really gets underway well into the first act, when the lowly shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand), banished by the king from pursuing the princess Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), cross-dresses as an Amazonian warrior to get quality time with his unsuspecting sweetheart. It’s a setup right out of “Some Like It Hot” or “Tootsie,” if not time immemorial, but imagine a “Some Like It Hot” that just gets less and less straight until it ends with a succession of same-sex marriages.
The action is spread out enough among the ensemble that audiences may spend some time trying to figure out who the protagonist is, but that proves to be a fool’s errand. Introducing the show is Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), daughter of the viceroy to the king, who breaks the fourth wall to say she’s mostly there just to narrate and occasionally move the action along — a bit of misdirection, given just how critical she becomes to the sapphic part of the proceedings later on. It looks like it might be the story of the king’s eldest, Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), whose vanity is played for plus-sized laughs till a sympathetic reveal gives her a reason for her nastiness. A theater name as big as Rachel York wouldn’t be here as the queen if she weren’t due to get her own making-up-for-sexual-deprivation storyline.
There’s more than one queen in this narrative, anyway, thanks to an oracle played by Peppermint, the mononymous star of Season 9 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” who will soon be the first transgender woman to take on a top role on Broadway. Dooming the cast with some ominous prophecies, and coming off deeply lovable even as she’s doing the damning, Peppermint plays Pythio by way of Frank N. Furter. The show takes a little bit to get going, but it’s right around the time that Pythio, proud King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and befuddled viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins) engage in a lengthy discussion of what pronouns are appropriate for a gender-fluid soothsayer — “they,” of course, becoming the agreed upon term — that you finally know the script is in pretty good hands.
The story has been through a lot of hands on its way to San Francisco; it’s based on a 16th century prose piece by Sir Philip Sidney that got dramatized that century as James Shirley’s “The Arcadia.” Speaking of people who are no longer on the project, as it were, the original creative force behind this adaptation was Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), who has exited since the show was first produced three years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Whitty gets “conceived and original book by” credit, with James Magruder (“Triumph of Love”) getting the current “adapted by” credit. The 2015 reviews out of Oregon (where the New York Times loved the script, hated the songs!) tell us that a lot has changed and a lot hasn’t in subsequent workshops. There’s less iambic pentameter now, and also about 45 minutes less of show. One hates to see a brilliant creative driver exit, but some of these changes may be for the better; reports that the initial production had Whitty rewriting Go-Go’s lyrics to fit the narrative sound faintly horrifying.
So how do the Go-Go’s songs fit into this period mayhem? I’m still not sure I have a good answer for that. I can only report that, as a fan of the group since before the first album, I was made deliriously happy by the contextualizing (or lack of contextualizing) of all but a couple of the 18 catalog picks. When the show opens with a full-cast performance of (what else) “We Got the Beat,” it’s not entirely clear how this will work, since there are no kids “gettin’ out of school” and nobody — thankfully — is doing the watusi. Even then, there are positive signs: the choreography by Spencer Liff is unassuming and fun, and whoever is handling the volume knob that turns up the band during guitar riffs and back down for vocals has a good, light touch. As for that band, only a curtain call at the end reveals it’s a five-piece “all-girl” group up in the stage rafters. Nice going.
Eventually, the musical scheme turns out to be not that complicated: the Go-Go’s have a lot of falling-in-and-out-of-love songs that could be squeezed into any multi-romantic farce. And if this musical habitually breaks the cardinal rule that each song should advance the plot… well, why so serious? The tunes are relevant enough to the action, and some surprising deep-cut choices have been made alongside the hits. (Even buffs may scratch their heads for a second when the obscure “Beautiful” becomes vain Pamela’s theme song, or the almost-as-forgotten “Good Girl” becomes Philoclea’s.)
If, like some of us, you still have traumatic nightmares of the Queen musical “We Will Rock You,” rest assured that there’s not that much literalizing here. In the first bit of post-“We Got the Beat” dialogue, there are references to the kingdom subsisting on a magical force called the Beat — a la the Force — and, thank Zeus, that dumb conceit only comes up a couple times more. Naturally, “Vacation” will involve a young woman suddenly having a lovestruck realization while on holiday — cue the dancers as mermaids, holding up fish tails from behind likably chintzy cardboard waves — that happens to dovetail with one of many sexual orientation epiphanies.
“Head Over Heels” might be the Go-Gos’ most deeply infectious song, even if it wasn’t one of their biggest hits, so it’s smartly placed at the beginning of Act 2 as the most ebullient “welcome back” song a show can have (especially since “We Got The Beat” has to hog the opening and closing slots). The only truly painful case of shoehorning comes later in the second act, when a swordfight between the shepherd and king — who’s experiencing a bit of homophobic panic — is set to a duet of… “Lust to Love.” For a verse or so, you think it’s being played for laughs; if only it were. At least there’s no question about the comedy when a five-second snippet of “Skidmarks on My Heart” is abruptly performed as characters have key moments of shock throughout the show. You might wish the cast would break into the full song at some point, but it’s still fun as a recurring spit-take gag.
The number that may strike plenty of patrons as the biggest showstopper is Carlisle’s solo smash “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” the number that accompanies the nearly R-rated portion of the show, when multiple sexual congresses take place in silhouette behind a curtain for several minutes. The song’s strength makes it work, somehow.
There are no weak links in the cast of the production at San Francisco’s Curran Theater — not even with as inexperienced a stage actor as Peppermint, who’s clearly spent a lifetime thinking about commanding a room. York has exactly the right chops for a put-upon royal housewife coming into her sexually guileful queenhood. But the standout slapstick belongs to Durand, who at one point does a binary-gender-confusion pantomime behind the royal couple — who are caught up in a duet about how they’re both mad about the boy — acting out both the queen’s virile-hunk fantasy and the king’s picture of a perfect mistress.
Director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) hasn’t had much chance to prove he’s adept with pure farce before, so it’s a treat to see how speedily he can advance the subplots and shenanigans here. He does have experience with gender-fluidity themes after “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but since this is clearly aimed at a broader audience than “Hedwig” — maybe even a family audience, if the kids don’t think too hard about those silhouettes — you sense him baiting the audience to applaud some of the more blatant and serious LGBTQ acceptance moments toward the close, even though everyone is already getting the message just fine through all the laughter. In San Francisco, of course, they’re preaching to the choir, as they more or less will be in New York; maybe the more underlined moments are included with the road show in mind.
But few watching “Head Over Heels” on Broadway will need much cajoling on gay marriage. They may need a lot of convincing on the marriage of power-pop to faux-Shakespeare; I’m guessing that most who prefer their musicals to take a straighter path will come out as allies.”