Calling Sophocles, Shakespeare and American rock bands of the 1980s! I believe I have located your wayward, long-lost child at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. At least, I assume it was them — they were clad in deep-toned Tudor-profile garb, traveling through the mid-eastern Peloponnese and singing “We Got the Beat.”
Well, that’s where “Head Over Heels,” an eccentric Elizabethan-era musical set to the tune of the Go-Go’s’ greatest hits, showed for its pre-Broadway premiere Wednesday evening. Termed a “celebration of love in all its forms” by the Go-Go’s themselves, the musical follows the royal family of Arcadia on a quest to preserve the so-called “beat” that maintains all order in the region.
After the Oracle of Delphi (Peppermint) presents Basilius, King of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier) with predictions of the end of his reign, the ruler leads his family through the woods in an attempt to outmaneuver the prophecies.
Calling to mind “As You Like It,” the characters clumsily come to terms with the objects of their affection, pursuing their respective loves in a blunder while traveling through the woods. In a turn of events reminiscent of “Oedipus,” in attempting to avoid the realization of the prophecies, the King ends up sowing the seeds for their fulfillment.
Though at times exhilarating, witty and humorous, and carried by a remarkably consummate cast, “Head Over Heels” suffers from an often heavy-handed script. Adapted from the late-16th-century drama “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” by James Magruder, much of the original wit and charm of “Arcadia” is missing from the onstage dialogue.
The script may have benefited from an increase in subtlety, as various jokes came off as more cheesy and overdramatic than humorous. Indeed, the absurdity of the occasional insertion of contemporary phrases with the otherwise traditional, iambic pentameter-style verses came off as awkward rather than witty.
Despite a less-than-smooth transition from source material to script, the musical benefited greatly from a decidedly adept cast of extraordinary performers. Highlights included Andrew Durand as Musidoras, the eccentric Shepherd in love with Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), the younger daughter of Basilius. Durand quickly proved to be a crowd favorite, at once eliciting hearty guffaws from the audience and warming hearts as Musidoras attempted to propose to an infatuated Philoclea with a humorous but spotlessly executed rendition of “Mad About You.”
Peppermint, best known for appearances on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” also led some of the most successful moments in the show as Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. The drag performer boasted an assertive and tactful presence onstage, granting her character a funny yet self-assured presence. Peppermint also broke ground as the first leading, openly transgender woman to star in a Broadway musical. To Magruder’s credit, the unprecedented nature of the appearance was not lost in the script. For instance, when confronted with King Basilius’ confused inquiry as to the Oracle’s gender, Pythio pithily retorts with, “How is gender germaine to discussion?” This simple line is one that is likely to resonate with many questioning the conductivity of such labels to understanding one’s identity.
“Head Over Heels” tries to speak to historically marginalized communities in spheres extending beyond gender identity — though gender bending, cross-dressing and questions of gender expression prevail throughout the script. Following in the wake of contemporary musicals that have successfully retold stories historically dominated by homogeneously white players (shoutout to “Hamilton”), “Head Over Heels” features a range of performers of color. These include Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa, the Puck-like self-declared “chaperone” of the tale, as well as much of the outstanding ensemble.
Yet, unlike “Hamilton,” the vast majority of the principal cast present was white. As attendee Sam Seigel, who identifies as Black, noted of the unevenly concentrated diversity in the cast, “It was basically like there was a ‘blackground.’ ” Most of the creative team behind “Head Over Heels” also presents as white. It makes sense, therefore, that, though the show makes a point of speaking to sentiments of inclusion and equality for all, it does not walk the walk, so to speak.
So, yes — “Head Over Heels” was admittedly entertaining and fun, with three of the original Go-Go’s making an appearance for opening night. Yet, in terms of spurring social change or making a profound point, this quirky child is a bit off-beat.