5 Reasons Not to Hate Head Over Heels
By: Iris Wiener
August 14, 2018: At first glance it is hard to find any reason to enjoy Head Over Heels. As a whole, it is a train wreck of a piece despite the incredibly creative team behind it. One can only imagine the size of the joints that were rolled when Jeff Whitty solidified the concept for this theatrical mayhem. The book, based on Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia, has no business as a front for the latest jukebox musical featuring the work of 80s super-group the Go-Go’s. The story is secondary to the display of radio hits, a fact that is most evident at the abrupt, lazy ending. Matched with 16th century prose and Elizabethan farce, the bizarre outcome of this venture is giddy at best, gaudy at worst. Despite all of this, there are a few redeeming qualities to be found within this Broadway sideshow, and they are worth checking out:
1. Bonnie Milligan as Pamela. As the vain elder daughter of King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and his wife (Rachel York), Milligan steals the show. Her Pamela’s pomposity is owned and deserved, as she revels in her bombastic beauty. It is refreshing and gratifying to see a plus-size dynamo play on one’s notion of the classic stage darling, while her younger sister, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), more accurately fits the mold of the stereotypical princess…but falls by the wayside in this story. Milligan delivers comedy while belting to the rafters, stealing the show at every turn. Her take on “Beautiful” is magnificent, but she really gets to show her chops when she literally tears up the stage during the number “How Much More.” Though there isn’t a lot to love in this show, Bonnie Milligan (who is also making her Broadway debut) is a star-in-the-making for whom everyone will immediately fall head over heels.
2. The all-female band. Head Over Heels is the first musical based on the tunes of an all-female band, so it made sense for musical director (and keyboardist) Kimberly Grigsby (Spring Awakening) to hire women to “man” the instruments. Along with associate music director Jane Cardona, Grigsby brought on guitarists Ann Klein and Bess Rogers, drummer Dena Tauriello, and bassist Catherine Popper, who have worked with artists ranging from Jack White and Rob Thomas to Norah Jones and Ingrid Michaelson. The Go-Go’s’ music has never sounded this good.
3. Themes of inclusivity and acceptance. None of the many couples in this show are traditional by any means, hopefully marking another step toward a new norm: couples of all shapes, genders and ages within a quasi-fairy tale story. Yes, audiences are at times hit over the head with various facets of the issue (especially in the case of trans drag performer Peppermint’s campy shtick). However, when most Elizabethan plays have fun with gender-swapping as though it is a joke, it is interesting to be in on the tongue-in-cheek poignancy of it with Head Over Heels.
4. Spencer Liff’s choreography. The punk-rock 80s vibe of the Go-Go’s’ music is rivaled here only by the brilliantly jerky, mostly non-synchronistic moves designed by Spencer Liff (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). The opening number, “We Got the Beat,” includes angular motions that rival any other tone on the New York stage. Audiences will catch some familiar moves (voguing, anyone?) but the unique sequences mirror the fabulously kitschy MTV music videos of the Go-Go’s’ time, creating a genuinely fun nostalgia.
5. The Go-Go’s’ music doesn’t disappoint…unless audiences are looking for substance. If one wants to enjoy hits such as “Vacation” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” then this is a fun way to get a blast from the past. Sure, you’ll be humming “Mad About You” as you leave the theatre, and most likely for days to come. This is no Mamma Mia! or American Idiot (and the plot is an absurd amalgamation of too many tropes and strange theatrical devices), but the music holds up and is occasionally presented in an entertaining, creative fashion (“Mad About You” is sung by Andrew Durand’s Musidorus as he pines for Philoclea). In the character’s final lines Pythio states: “To draw a circle one must end where one began.” It is an appropriate line when held up to the opening and closing renditions of the foot-tapping “We Got the Beat,” but it’s too bad that the show never got better than where it was when it started.
Head Over Heels opened on July 26 for an open run at the Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., in NYC.
Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm.
Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $49—$290. (855) 801-5876. www.thehudsonbroadway.com.
Photography: Joan Marcus