The Sex and Gender Revels Are Unending

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | If Ron Chernow’s weighty biography “Hamilton” seemed an unlikely source for a smash hit musical, how much more unexpected is it that Philip Sidney’s 1590 five-book epic, “The Arcadia,” should be the source material for the deliciously hilarious “Head Over Heels?”

Sidney’s tale is ponderous, to say the least, and getting through the Middle English of the original is heavy work indeed. Parts of its elaborate plot were even lifted by Shakespeare for “King Lear,” leaving mountains of material behind. As conceived by Jeff Whitty, who wrote the original book, and adapted by James Magruder, “Head Over Heels” is an explosion of over-the-top silliness, color, and exuberance.

More importantly, director Michael Mayer and choreographer Spencer Liff bring such intelligence and comic brilliance to the whole undertaking that this high-energy great time is the first solid hit of the new Broadway season. And as you may know, the whole shebang is set to the songs of the Go-Go’s. So, while one might be tempted to call this a jukebox musical, it’s really in a class by itself. In fact, in its comic sense and vaudevillian antics, it’s reminiscent of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which was based on the plays of Plautus.

The plot is a hodgepodge of tricks and tropes that include royal weddings, threats from oracles, disguises, surprise revelations… and sex. Lots of sex. All you really need to know going into this is that the land of Arcadia is defined by its own beat. We know this because the fantastic opening number is, in fact, the Go-Go’s hit “We Got the Beat.” When King Basilius learns that his country and his court are at risk of losing the beat, they try to outrun the warnings of Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. It doesn’t work out quite as well as he hoped.

Taylor Iman Jones and the company in “Head Over Heels.” | JOAN MARCUS

Sprinkled in all of this are tales of a lowly shepherd disguised as an Amazon warrior, a straying wife, and the awakened passions of a daughter being married off for the good of the country. To anyone with even a passing knowledge of favorite Elizabethan plots, much of this will seem familiar, but the writers have updated this with some delightful gender-bending surprises and a contemporary sense of humor both witty and broad. There are also nods to Sidney’s original language as the shepherd Musidorus declaims in florid prose, only to have everyone yell, “Speak English!” The songs seem to fit organically into the piece, which is no small feat, and part of the fun is anticipating which one is next as the plot works up to it. Tom Kitt has done a great job orchestrating and arranging the songs so they feel consistent within the context of the score and maintain the brightness and energy of the originals.

The company is wonderful. Notably, Broadway veteran Rachel York is hilarious as Gynecia, wife to King Basilius. She plays the broad sex comedy perfectly as Gynecia lusts after Musidorus after she realizes the Amazon is a guy. Bonnie Milligan is wonderful as the vain older sister Pamela who resists being married off, only to discover that her true love is her waiting woman Mopsa, a delightful Taylor Iman Jones. Alexandra Socha is terrific as Philoclea, the younger, plainer daughter who’s in love with Musidorus and determined to marry him over the objection of her father. As Musidorus, Andrew Durand delivers a superb comic performance that balances the endearing and the ridiculous. Peppermint as the oracle Pythio is great. She has the distinction of being the first transgender woman to create a principal Broadway role, and she does so with verve, presence, and unmistakable style.

“Head Over Heels,” funny as it is, never veers into camp, staying true to its admittedly contrived plot. In a comic context, the piece takes important themes of gender identity and acceptance very seriously.

Peppermint and the ensemble from Jeff Whitty and James Magruder’s “Head Over Heels,” directed by Michael Mayer, at the Hudson Theater. | JOAN MARCUS

It’s no spoiler to note that in true Elizabethan fashion after all the hijinks are over, identities revealed, true lovers united, and wrongs righted, Arcadia has come to see itself in a new light — one where everyone is loved for who they are and how they understand themselves. That may be wishful thinking in real life, but, then, this is a musical and, for sheer joy, you can’t beat that.

HEAD OVER HEELS | Hudson Theater, 141 W. 44th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun 3 at p.m. | $49-$299 at or 855-801-5876 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission

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