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BWW Review: Sir Philip Sidney Meets The Go-Go's in Love-Happy Romp, HEAD OVER HEELS


Fans of late 16th Century pastoral poetic narrative tragicomedy have been all abuzz anticipating the Broadway arrival of the new song and dance adaptation of a Sir Philip Sidney classic. But rather than go the obviously commercial route and title their creation "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, the Musical," the creators have opted to call their peppy merriment Head Over Heels.

Head Over Heels
Tanya Haglund, Samantha Pollino, Bonnie Milligan,
Ari Groover and Amber Ardolino
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

For the benefit of Elizabethan scholars who may be taxing their brains trying to decipher the reason for the more contemporary moniker, it should be explained that Head Over Heels takes its title from a 1984 hit single by new wave rockers, The Go-Go's (yes, grammar guardians, that's the correct spelling), whose catalogue of catchy punk/pop hits, heavy on the traditional back beat, supplies the evening's exuberant score.

This unlikely Tinder matchup was the brainchild of playwright Jeff Whitty, best known as bookwriter for AVENUE Q, who penned the script that premiered in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But the show arrives on Broadway with a new creative team, including James Magruder, previously represented on Broadway with his book for TRIUMPH OF LOVE, who is credited with adapting Whitty's work.

Of course, great literary achievement should rarely be expected when a set group of previously written songs from one source are utilized in an attempt to advance the plot and define the characters of a musical. For one thing, the lyrics are rarely able to be specific to the situations. And even more problematic is that all the characters tend to express themselves with the same musical and lyrical vocabularies.

Then there's the matter of finding room for the hit songs audiences demand that have nothing to do with anything that's going on. (Impressive crowbar skills were required to somehow fit "Vacation" into the proceedings.)

Of course, for the audience HEAD OVER HEELS is no doubt aimed at, none of that matters. So if the plot slogs about a bit, the attempts at humor can get clunky and the lyrics (at least from where this reviewer was sitting about two-thirds up the orchestra) are often indecipherable, give credit to director Michael Mayer, choreographer Spencer Liff, orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt, music director Kimberly Grigsby (who leads the five-piece all-woman band) and a talented company seemingly obsessed with showing the audience a good time. On paper, Head Over Heels may not be to everyone's taste (including this reviewer), but it certainly achieves its goal of providing glossy, energetic fun. And when you tack on the fact that there's a message or two about inclusivity, well, so much the better.

"For ages, the beat has ordered our lives," declares King Basilius of Arcadia (terrifically stuffy Jeremy Kushnier). Exactly what this beat is isn't clear (perhaps Dorothy Fields might have called it The Rhythm of Life) but it not only helps Arcadia flourish, but provides a rousing opening number, "We Got The Beat," belted out by the company as Liff's dancers establish the main terpsichorean style of the evening, a fusion of classical ballet and 80s club moves. This highbrow/pop combo also graces Arianne Phillips' costumes and the way the text counters spoken Elizabethan jargon with sung Reagan-era vernacular.

Head Over Heels
Andrew Durand and Alexandra Socha
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

It's the annual feast and celebration of the flocks, the day when eligible Arcadian bachelors are granted the opportunity to win the heart of Princess Pamela, played by cabaret artist Bonnie Milligan, who, sporting a killer belt and a comic savvy that makes her character's extreme vanity adorable, makes a smashing Broadway debut.

But Pamela feels nary a stir from the parade of buff dudes showing off for her, preferring the company of the young woman who serves as her attendant, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones). You know where this is going, right?

Meanwhile, younger princess Philoclea (spunky Alexandra Socha) is gaga for the naïve shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand, also quite adorable), but their love appears doomed by class differences.

Trouble brews when an enormous cut-out of a snake delivers a message from Zeus warning that Arcadia will lose its beat without following instructions than can be heard from the prophecies of Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi.

Pythio is played with glitzy downtown verve by Peppermint, who asks, "How is gender germane to the discussion?" when Basilius asks if the oracle be man or woman. The king is then offered a lesson in the non-binary plural pronouns Pythio uses for self-identity.

Viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins in a dour comic turn), who is Mopsa's single dad, senses something familiar and appealing about Pythio, but that's for the second act.

To escape the prophecy, Basilius evacuates all of Arcadia and leads a trek to the artist colony of Bohemia. Rejected by the king as a suitable suitor for Philoclea, Musidorus joins the journey disguised as an armored Amazon, attracting the sexual attention of not only Basilius, but of Queen Gynecia (always fab Rachel York), who has been feeling a bit unfulfilled lately.

As mindless fun goes, Head Over Heels is certainly a bit brainier than similar fare like MAMMA MIA!, and it's played with such innocent sincerity that the show is quite suitable for all ages. Certainly those lusting to hear Go-Go's favorites (as well as Belinda Carlisle solo outings) like "Cool Jerk," "Mad About You," "Beautiful," "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" will have a ball. Sir Philip Sidney purists may have to wait for the folks at London's National or The Old Vic to whip up something.

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