Sly but rambunctious, big-hearted but snarky: Head Over Heels, now at the Hudson Theatrem, is the new bizarre musical on Broadway. Why bizarre? Well, when was the last time anybody saw The Go-Go Girls and Sir Philip Sidney share billing in a program? This is a good-time show, smart and loud and colorful, with a terrific cast and a great all-girls rock band banging out the beat behind the upstage wall. Under Michael Mayer’s direction, these very game actors are, without exception, a pleasure to watch and listen to.
Jeff Whitty, who earns his last name (check out his The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler), provides the show’s book, which is based on Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia, a 17th-century pastoral romance in which courtiers disguised as Amazons and shepherds make love and sing. James Magruder adapted it, while the hilarious choreography, including the inevitable Watusi and pony, was created by Spencer Liff. The chorus of dancers is wildly agile, full of style and fun. The music is the Go-Go Girls' 1980s songs, including "We Got the Beat," "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" (a solo hit for Go-Go's frontwoman Belinda Carlisle), and, of course, "Head Over Heels."
The parodic plot, involving quests and golden stags, secret lovers, and whatnot, turns on a prophecy that the kingdom might lose its “beat” — the very essence of its life and joy — if it doesn’t relinquish its ironclad traditions. The king (Jeremy Kushnier) decides they should all hit the road. The Queen (Rachel York) finds herself “beguiled,” much to her sexy surprise.
There’s a giant snake that descends from the fake proscenium, delivering messages, beckoning its minions with, “Snakelettes, slither hither.” The shepherd (Andrew Durand) is smitten with the young princess (Alexandra Socha). She suffers from that common girlish affliction of wanting to please everyone, while he speaks “Ecologue” — a mashup of bucolic English words not heard for four centuries. Much of the show’s dialogue is in iambic pentameter.
Meanwhile, the older princess (Bonnie Milligan) keeps rejecting her suitors, until it is revealed that it’s her handmaiden (Taylor Iman Jones) she loves. Gender is the anti-point of it all:
PYTHIO: How is gender germane to the discussion?
BASILIUS: Things need to be one thing or another.
PYTHIO: My qualities transcend your rude opinion! Pythio is a non-binary plural.
DAMETAS: Neither he nor she, but ... they. You are they. Pythio the Oracle is they.
And who better to play "they" than Peppermint, an opulent transgender actor recruited from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The costumes are spectacular (don’t miss the Titian painting Adam and Eve on the princess’ cape — wink, wink); loved the sheep. The old songs are as energetic and infectious as ever they were (“How Much More” is “like a mad scene out of a tragedy”), but it will, of course, end comically. All in all, the show is a Sapphic hoot, interrogating all our binaries: male/female, old/young, beautiful/plain, traditional/free.