REVIEW : The question at the heart of Head Over Heels is whether Elizabethan comedy and the music of the Go-Go’s go together. Sadly, the answer is no.
(See below for other opinions about the first musical of the season, which was capitalized for at least $11.6 million, according to investment papers.)
The jukebox musical that opened Thursday at the Hudson Theatre is (bizarrely) ostensibly based on Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century Greek-mythological prose poem, The Arcadia. Thus the not-quite-iambic pentameter of the shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand), when he finds the skeletons of actors in the woods accompanied by a note: “These sad remains are of our theatre troupe, / Starved for lack of Serious Message.” This could charitably be called meta-commentary.
The problem with Head Over Heels isn’t that it’s unserious – plenty of great musicals are – but that its shoehorned-in songs seldom advance its unpleasant plot.
James Magruder’s book, adapted from an earlier version by Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty, is a vulgar farce that makes no sense. In between the cross-dressing, the mistaken identities and the transgender clairvoyant python gods, it lunges at social inclusion ham-fistedly; Taylor Iman Jones and Bonnie Milligan play a lesbian couple that makes one yearn for the days of Rent, when same-sex love was human instead of merely purposelessly transgressive.
It should come as no surprise that the songs of The Go-Go’s, cotton-candy sweet as many of them are, don’t lend themselves to theatrical storytelling, least of all this story. And Tom Kitt’s uneven orchestrations for a five-piece band leave them seeming tiny and monotonous. Other than the title number – a dark horse for the best song the band ever wrote – the songs blend into the background, along with most of the principals. (A synopsis might accurately read that this is really a show about backup dancers, even though Spencer Liff’s flashy choreography is largely unremarkable.)
Jones, a breakout star, and Durand, acquitting himself well, are exceptions. Director Michael Mayer, who staged the original production of Spring Awakening, knows what to do with an ensemble (he does a shadow-play “Heaven is a Place on Earth” that genuinely works), and he struggles valiantly to inject genuine humor into the proceedings, but it’s almost painful to watch his direction edge ever closer to the epiphany that this whole thing is ridiculous but never quite get there.
Head Over Heels, which ends with a head-banging dance number that exhorts the audience, “Everybody get on your feet,” seems to allow no room for dissent. The gist is: If you’re not enjoying this, it’s your fault. The court of Arcadia, in the musical, is hamstrung by its adherence to tradition; the musical itself, in its desperation to be audacious, winds up merely exhausting.
James Feinberg is the writer of Boy Meets Girl, an original musical premiering at the New York Theater Festival on August 6.
Show-Score, a site that assigns numeric values to reviews, gave Head Over Heels an average score of 66 (out of 100), based on 26 critics’ notices. Sara Holdren, of New York magazine, described it as “a lot nutso, in the most delightfully daffy, exuberantly heart-open way.” Time Out’s Adam Feldman called it a “campy romp” and a “celebration of nonconformity” with lots to enjoy.
Charles Isherwood lamented in Broadway News that the “stylistic dissonance between the book and its songs ultimately proves to be an insurmountable problem,” with Roma Torre at NY1 calling it a “cockamamie mish mash of disparate elements.” Ben Brantley in the New York Times said it lacks “the go-for-broke exuberance that made the Go-Go’s so irresistible.”