Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Review of "Head Over Heels"

I was very disappointed with Head Over Heels, the new Broadway musical that incorporates the songbook of the Go Go’s, one of the most influential female groups of the New Wave era.  The book of the production, based on the Arcadia by 16th century writer Sir Philip Sidney, is convoluted and not well suited to the musical compositions of the band.  The show also tries, with muted success, too hard to be hip and politically in tune. 

The story, conceived and written by Jeff Whitty, begins in the land of Arcadia where King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) rules with his wife, Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) and their two daughters—the eldest, Princess Pamela (Bonnie Mulligan) and her younger sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha).   The full-figured and egocentric Pamela, who her parents are trying to marry off, continuously rejects suitors while her plain and innocent sister yearns for the simple, kindhearted shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand). 

In quick succession, the king goes before the Oracle of Delphi (the actress Peppermint), listens to her dire predictions for the kingdom, and packs up his family for a vacation in an attempt to flee from the gloom and doom prophecy.  During their traveling through the forests outside the realm love, in its many forms and guises, makes its mark on each of the central characters just as the Oracle had predicted, which leads to happiness, song and dance for everyone.

The book of the show comes across as overly elaborate for a jukebox musical and, in the end, engenders disinterest in the plot and characters.  Not to say a show like Mamma Mia is the pinnacle of these types of productions, but that long-running ABBA musical got it right.  The libretto was neatly crafted, full of frivolity and frothiness, and utilized the Swedish group’s song catalogue to perfection.  Whitty’s construction for Head Over Heels would have been better served with a storyline that was more lighthearted and took less effort to follow.

The score utilizes Top 40 songs by the Go Go’s, popular numbers, and lesser known works such as “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and the title number “Head Over Heels.”  They are briskly and good-naturedly delivered by the cast.  A well-rehearsed, musically adept five-piece female band (who are revealed to thunderous applause at the conclusion of the show) provides indispensible support.  As good as the songs may be, the overall impression is how most feel shoe horned into scenes.

The cast is game for what Mr. Whitty and Director Michael Mayer throws at them.  They cavort around the stage, gnash their teeth, primp themselves, fret and, as in the case of Andrew Durand, find their inner femininity.  The two cast members of note are Bonnie Mulligan, who is appropriately over-the-top and assuredly confident as Princess Pamela and Peppermint, who it has been noted, is the first transgender performer to play a lead in a Broadway musical. She is appropriately flamboyant and high-spirited and is the sole person who’s portrayal has best grasped the silliness and irreverence of the production.

Director Michael Mayer has a difficult task, trying to fold the cumbersome book into a well-paced, vibrant Broadway musical.  There are flourishes that work, such as the “Vacation” production number and the meeting of the Oracle in the serpentine forest and others that are strained and pedestrian such as the king and queen’s shadowy carnal moments.

Choreographer Spencer Liff ‘s ramped up dance routines give a manic feel that proves distracting and takes away from the enjoyment of the songs.  This is exemplified right at the top of the show with “We Got the Beat.”

Head Over Heels, an inauspicious start to the new Broadway season.

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