Review: ‘Head Over Heels’ Stumbles on Broadway
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, July 27, 2018
The process of creating a jukebox musical involves at least one pivotal decision. You can either use a particular songbook to tell the story of the artists involved, as in the case of Jersey Boys, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Or you can adapt the songbook to a new or preexisting story, as with Mamma Mia, Good Vibrations, All Shook Up, and this past season’s Escape to Margaritaville.
The former path has produced at least two shows that have actually been enjoyable and well-crafted: Jersey Boys and Beautiful. The latter path has one ginormous hit, Mamma Mia, but the shows themselves have been of mediocre quality or less.
The creators of Head Over Heels, the new Broadway musical based on the songbook of the 1980s all-female new wave band, The Go-Go’s, have chosen the pre-existing story path. I suppose it’s theoretically possible for a good jukebox musical to take this path, but Head Over Heels is not that musical.
The best jukebox shows find ways to make the songs feel relevant, if not necessary. But with Head Over Heels, there’s no natural affinity between the story and the songs, so the songs at best become diversions from the story, if not outright impediments.
The story to Head Over Heels represents an updated version of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, a 16th Century work by Sir Philip Sidney, a rollicking tale of royalty, oracles, mistaken identities, and what you will. Librettist James Magruder (working from an original draft by Jeff Whitty) has chosen a deliberately anachronistic approach, with heightened language, often in rhymed form, set against a decidedly contemporary treatment of the songs.
It’s not the style mismatch that is the problem, however. It’s the songs themselves, which include the Go-Go’s hits “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and the Belinda Carlisle solo hit “Mad About You.” And unlike the songs in Jersey Boys and Beautiful, those in Head Over Heels aren’t good enough, specific enough, or well-known enough to carry the show on their own.
Say what you want about Mamma Mia (and there’s soooooo much I could say), but part of its charm comes from one’s recognition of, and nostalgia for, the songs themselves. You hear the first few chords, and you’re like, “Awwww, ‘Super Trouper’…” Admittedly, the song “Our Lips Are Sealed” actually fit well in the context of the story, appropriate for both sets of lovers in the story. But you know a show’s in trouble when you say, “Oh, this song actually fits.”
That said, Head Over Heels is amiable enough, and is frequently quite funny. And the show admirably expands the Arcadia story to embrace a broad spectrum of sexual and gender orientations.
But certain plot devices lack justification. For instance, after the opening number, “We Got the Beat,” the book makes a half-hearted effort to make an important theme out of “The Beat,” and the kingdom’s dependency on maintaining that beat. But there’s nothing in the material that makes such a contrivance make any sense, and frankly the idea feels stolen from a much better show, Bring in Da Noize, Bring in da Funk.
Despite the mostly first-rate cast, the production has a summer-stock feeling to it. One major culprit would be Michael Mayer and his uncharacteristically flabby comic direction. Much of the would-be humorous business in the show feels awkward and uncertain, especially the business involving both the king and queen being attracted to Musidorus, the local shepherd who disguises himself as an Amazon to join the royal party and be near his beloved, the royal couple’s younger daughter, Philoclea.
Another major detriment is Spencer Liff’s static choreography. Liff seems to think that placing the chorus in a set pattern on stage and then giving them warmed-over voguing movements for their arms amounts to actual Broadway choreography. Liff’s previous Broadway outings as a choreographer include Hedwig and the Angry Inch (which was essentially concert movements for one performer) and Falsettos (which featured a few stagy numbers, but nothing with complexity). However, Liff doesn’t yet seem to be up to the challenge of moving a larger chorus of dancers in anything more than a straight line or a moving block.
Plus — and this is more the fault of Mayer and Magruder than of Liff — Head Over Heels frequently relies upon dance interludes to cover changes of location, which is a sure sign of lazy writing. The production also features an egregious number of scenes-in-one, which basically means the curtain comes down and there’s a scene in front of the curtain to cover a set change. These outmoded techniques have rightfully been relegated to the theatrical scrapheap, and it’s frankly a disappointment to see the director of Spring Awakening, American Idiot and the recent revival of Hedwig fall back on them.
As I mentioned, that cast is mostly first-rate, including two Broadway pros, Jeremy Kushnier and Rachel York, doing yeoman’s work with the king and queen roles. A major standout is a wonderfully animated Andrew Durand as Musidorus. Durand has a remarkably sharp and consistent sense of character, and it’s great to see him get a chance to bring that to the fore. (Full disclosure: Andrew is a former student of mine at the Boston Conservatory.)
One supposedly marquee-value member of the cast is Peppermint, late of the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Peppermint has neither the singing nor the acting chops to sustain the small but pivotal role of the Oracle of Delphi. And it’s not like she makes up for it in girl-glam ferocity. Her casting feels like little more than a publicity stunt, as her lack of stage experience readily shows.
On a final note, I was troubled by one of the running jokes in the show, one that had to do with the supposed relative attractiveness of the two sisters, Philoclea and Pamela. Pamela frequently claims that she is the more attractive sister, and part of the intended humor certainly comes from the blatant immodesty of her character.
But Bonnie Milligan, who makes an indelibly delicious Broadway debut here as Pamela, is also a much heavier woman than Alexandra Socha, who plays Philoclea. The effect here, whether the creators intended it or not, is that the joke seems to be about Milligan’s appearance as well as her immodesty, and it comes off as fat-shaming.
Again, the authors may not have intended this at all, but the ambiguity created an uncomfortable uncertainty as to the author’s intent. In this age of increasing sensitivity to issues like body-shaming, one would hope that creators would have been more sensitive about creating such an impression.
Head Over Heels at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, in an open run. Running time: two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Book by Jeff Whitty; adapted by James Magruder; based on The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney; music by the Go-Go’s. Directed by Michael Mayer; choreography by Spencer Liff; scenic design by Julian Crouch; costume design by Arianne Phillips; lighting design by Kevin Adams; sound Design by Kai Harada; hair and make-up design by Campbell Young Associates; projection design by Andrew Lazarow; arrangements and orchestrations by Tom Kitt; musical direction by Kimberly Grigsby.
Cast: Andrew Durand, Taylor Iman Jones, Jeremy Kushnier, Bonnie Milligan, Peppermint, Tom Alan Robbins, Alexandra Socha, Rachel York, Amber Ardolino, Yurel Echezarreta, Ari Groover, Tanya Haglund, Gregory Liles, Samantha Pollino, Justin Prescott, Ricardo A. Zayas, Lisa Finegold, Christine Shepard and Tanner Ray Wilson.
Cover: Taylor Iman Jones (center) and the company of ‘Head Over Heels;’ photo: Joan Marcus.