'Head Over Heels' at the Curran Is a Zany Shakespearean Romance Set to the Go-Go’s Infectious Beats
by Jay Barmann
The curtain rises on an elaborately posed, heavily costumed tableau consisting of most of the cast, dressed in Elizabethan finery, and quickly they begin beating their chests and clapping their hands to the beat of The Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” It’s a juxtaposition that calls to mind Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette — royalty from a distant era, bustles and all, paired with New Wave music — only here they’re singing and dancing along, and they seem to be in on the joke.
This was the first of many fun and dazzling moments in Head Over Heels, the new musical which opened at the Curran in San Francisco last night ahead of a Broadway engagement beginning in July.
Based loosely on a sixteenth century romance by Sir Philip Sidney called The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Head Over Heels tells the quirky story of a royal court in exile, a king trying to outrun a prophecy of his own demise, and his two daughters discovering their first loves. At home in Arcadia, with no hint of irony, the main characters talk about having the gift of “the beat,” which here is a funny stand-in for an earlier, more religious notion of a blessing. This royal court is blessed, though, with the wealth and infectious 80s beat of the Go-Go’s songbook, adapted and arranged with great imagination by Broadway vet Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then, American Idiot).
Kitt previously collaborated with director Michael Mayer on American Idiot, which similarly took a band’s catalogue (Green Day’s) and overlaid it on a new story — and which also had its pre-Broadway tryout in the Bay Area, at Berkeley Rep. The main difference here is time period, and the at times hilarious pairing of familiar hits like “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Vacation” with the iambic pentameter in which all the characters speak.
At once surreal, modern, and Elizabethan goofy, it’s a play that gleefully blends Shakespearean verse, modern idiom, the gender-swapping antics of Shakespeare's comedies, and the contemporary conversation about sexuality and gender itself, and those who exist in its middle spaces. To their credit, book writer Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and adapter James Magruder have struck just the right balance between wink-wink raunchy asides with modern-day inflection and the formal rhythms and rhymes of the source material.
In what will be her Broadway debut, Rupaul’s Drag Race star Peppermint plays Pythio, a non-binary oracle who is introduced to us early in the play as neither male nor female, and is subsequently referred to as “they.” It’s a funny bit of pandering, perhaps, to this hot topic of our cultural moment, but it’s also very fitting that an oracle in this genre, from this era of magic-laden literature, is themselves a mysterious, indefinable being and is easily accepted as such by the other characters.
Broadway veterans Jeremy Kushnier and Rachel York do terrific work as the king and queen, Basilius and Gynecia, and in the main gender-swapping role of Musidorus, Andrew Durand is a marvelous physical comedian and Shakespearean fool, stealing scene after scene. Also very funny, though perhaps less polished, is Bonnie Milligan as Pamela, the princess who continues to turn away suitors because -- SPOILER -- she’s not that into men.
As with any big show in its infancy, there are small hiccups in the movement of the plot, musical numbers that feel like they should be trimmed, and jokes that don’t completely land. Two aspects of the production that feel flawless and Broadway ready are the sensational choreography by Spencer Liff — the rollicking opening number only lacks a similarly satisfying bookend at the end of Act 2, however — and the scenic design by Julian Crouch, who was Tony-nominated for his work on Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Mayer’s direction is spot on in its pacing and madcap energy, and whatever tweaks occur between now and the Broadway run are likely to be minor.
Fans of The Go-Go’s will be delighted to be given a new context for these songs (as well as a couple of Belinda Carlisle solo hits like “Mad About You”) and to hear Kitt’s arrangements, and it’s doubly cool when at the curtain call the backdrop rise to reveal the all-female band who has been performing the music. Go-Go’s member Charlotte Caffey says that while the band never really wanted to tell the Go-Go’s formation story in jukebox form, Head Over Heels came along and spoke to them. “There’s the element of fun, which has always been part of who we are. And it’s really smart and outside of the box and a little weird, and that’s who we are too. That’s why we gravitated toward this idea so quickly and happily.”
No doubt Head Over Heels is a lot of fun, and smart, and it provides a timely foil to the intolerant, patriarchal despotism of the Trump era too. This team, and this terrific cast, may just have a hit on their hands — so long as audiences can get with the beat of iambic pentameter, and tap their feet along.
'Head Over Heels' plays through May 6 at the Curran. Find tickets here.