Theater Review: HEAD OVER HEELS (Pre-Broadway San Francisco Premiere)

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by Patricia Schaefer on April 19, 2018

in Theater-New York,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Head Over Heels is an exhilarating and seemingly improbable musical mash-up of Sir Philip Sidney’s sixteenth-century work The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (libretto by James Magruder, adapting from an original book conceived by Jeff Whitty) and the songs of the iconic 1980s’ female rock band, The Go-Go’s (and a few tunes from Belinda Carlisle’s solo career). With its Elizabethan-age camp, cheeky dialogue, faux naïve-style set design, electric choreography and pulsing beat, this musical tackles today’s most progressive social issues of sexuality, gender and love with vibrant aplomb. If you are lucky enough to get a ticket, you will absolutely delight in one of the most original and moving musicals to come along in a very long time. After its run at the bejeweled and charming Curran Theater, playing for the ready-for-anything and accepting-of-everyone San Franciscans, the jukebox musical opens on Broadway in June (the world premiere took place at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016).

The premise is sort of A Funny Thing Happened (actually several funny things happened) On the Way to Arcadia. Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi — played by the spicy and delicious Miss Peppermint, who will be Broadway’s first transgender women to create a principal role — sets forth a prophecy of doom that sends the over-the-top royal family on a journey to save their beloved ancient kingdom. Along the way they encounter and endure gender-bending mistaken identities, sexual awakening, self-transformation, and a life-changing embrace of love, whatever its form.

You wouldn’t think that bringing together Elizabethan romance with 1980’s pop punk (“We Got The Beat,” “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” “Mad About You”) would work, but it does. Head Over Heels is an unpredictable, jam-packed, raucous tale full of dance and a steady beat. The music manages to be both contemporary and old fable, winking at the audience all the while. Kimberly Grigsby’s backstage all-female band, hidden until the curtain lifts at the finale, is excellent executing Tom Kitt’s (Next to Normal) arrangements.

The buxom and audacious elder daughter, Pamela, played by the substantially talented Bonnie Milligan, quickly sets things in motion by declining the overtures of her youthful suitors. Milligan, blessed with great comic timing and strong vocals, not to mention a halo of free-flowing red hair, has a big personality, in stark contrast to her half-pint younger sister, Philoclea, played with demure sweetness by Alexandra Socha, who lacks Milligan’s stature but matches her vocals. She is mostly convincing in her transformation from a little mouse of a girl into admirable heroic figure by play’s end. It is Philoclea who wants to accept a proposal from a suitor but is forbidden to do so by her closed-minded, heavy-handed father.

Taylor Iman Jones is a playful Mopsa, narrator of the events and daughter of The King’s Viceroy — and a most affectionate lady-in-waiting to the King’s eldest daughter. The lively and sprightly Jones wins our hearts when she ends up “on vacation” on the island of Lesbos — charmingly depicted by Scenic Designer Julian Crouch as an irreverent pastiche of postcard tropical isle and the birthplace of Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell — only to realize that the love of her life is the one she abandoned in a fit of pique back at the royal court.

Jeremy Kushnier plays the bossy, spoiled and frustrated Basilius, Arcadia’s King, whose remonstrations are initially calmed by the appeasing nature of his elegant, beautiful and ultimately strong-willed wife, Gynecia, played by the lovely Rachel York, whose rock-star vocals makes you wish she had more numbers.

With his gift for physical comedy and a tremendous vocal range, the lynchpin of the cast is the infectious and versatile Andrew Durand, playing Musidorus, the shepherd and devoted suitor of Philoclea. Without giving too much away, it is fair to say that without Durand, Head over Heels wouldn’t be half the fun romp that it is; the play’s gender reversing success rests firmly on his broad and comely shoulders. The entire cast, whether loyal sheep or the Royals’ devoted and wise staff, win you over and over again with a jovial spirit to match their talent.

Spencer Liff’s choreography, street style and contemporary with sharp, precise gestures and a young, club feel, is absolutely adept at bringing the fresh beat of the Go-Go’s music to life. Liff, who has worked on So You Think You Can Dance for nine seasons, manages to come up with numbers that feel exciting, informal and spontaneous.

A naïve quality to the art design, akin to the Wes Anderson aesthetic, weaves through all the sets, engendering a sense of carefully curated nostalgia. The Palace of Arcadia, The Oracle’s Temple, and the Forest settings feature scenery familiar to us from fairy tales, and are old-fashioned looking enough to invoke a pretend ancient world blended with that of the 1500s. Coupled with Kevin Adams’ sparkly lighting and Arianne Phillips’ non-period specific costumes, the overall effect is colorful and innovative, with shades of red, pink and blue — and some colors in between — adorning the stage effervescently, emoting feelings both masculine and feminine.

Under Michael Mayer’s direction, there is a lot of heart in this show, as well as a current political statement (beware, VP Mike Pence, this is not your mamma’s musical). The overall result is quite moving. Having traveled far but in a full-circle, ending up back in Arcadia — the same location where they physically began their journey to save the kingdom — the characters are not nearly the same people that began the journey. We are all so much better off for having accompanied them on this spectacular musical adventure.

photos by Joan Marcus

Head over Heels
Curran Theatre
445 Geary Street in San Francisco
ends on May 6, 2018
for tickets, call 415-358-1220 or visit SF Curran

opens on Broadway June 23, 2018, at the Hudson Theatre
for more info, visit Head over Heels

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