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HEAD OVER HEELS: A Vision of Nowness and Then-ness By Peter Filichia

You can’t say that HEAD OVER HEELS is your standard-issue jukebox
musical.

Broadway musicals that employ existing songs usually set them in
the here-and-now: PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT; MAMMA
MIA!

Others revert to the era when the songs were actually written. Hence
JERSEY BOYS, LENNON and MOVIN’ OUT all concentrated on the
‘60s.

And some jukebox musicals use melodies that had never been in a
jukebox: Wright and Forrest adapted Grieg for their SONG OF
NORWAY and Borodin for their KISMET.

HEAD OVER HEELS, however, has the greatest range of time yet
known to a jukebox musical. Songs from the late 20 th century now
pepper an adaptation of Sir Philip Sidney’s ARCADIA which he wrote
in the late 16th century.

But it’s not just a 400-year span that we’re talking about. Who’d
expect that songs by The Go-Go’s would deal with characters who
lived in 1400 B.C.?

You’ve got to hand it to conceiver and original bookwriter Jeff Whitty
and subsequent librettist James Magruder for not taking the easy
way out. Lesser writers would have been able to imagine nothing but
the late 20 th century for a Go-Go’s musical and left it at that. They
wanted to be more ambitious.

Of the show’s seventeen songs, original Go-Go’s member Jane
Wiedlin co-wrote the music and lyrics for ten. Later band members
contributed, too: Charlotte Caffey (eleven), Gina Schock (two),
Kathy Valentine (three) and Paula Jean Brown (one).

Fans of the group will immediately recognize their biggest hits: “We
Got the Beat” (which opens the musical), “Vacation,” “A Vision of
Nowness” and of course “Head over Heels.”

Despite their fame as the first all-female band to 1) play their own
instruments, 2) write the own songs and 3) reach Number One on
the charts, The Go-Go’s did do songs that men wrote, six of which
are in HEAD OVER HEELS, too.

The group started in 1978 but by 1985 its members had the seven-
year itch and broke up. Well, as a line in HEAD OVER HEELS goes,
“No true paradise remains in place forever.” As is often the case with
once-successful groups, The Go-Go’s have staged many reunion
concerts. Whether or not they’ll do another, HEAD OVER HEELS
allows them to still be heard on a stage in 2018.

That we’re in “Thee,” “Thy, “Thou” and “Thine” territory with semi-
punk and new wave music would seem to be a clash of the musical
titans. Not really, because HEAD OVER HEELS doesn’t ever take itself
seriously. It’s about the follies of love, a subject that The Go-Go’s
often covered in joyous, even innocent songs. The only heavy metal
on the premises is what was needed either to build or refurbish the
show’s home: The Hudson Theatre, now one of the most beautiful in
the country.

The show still takes place in an Arcadia that bears no resemblance to
the Tom Stoppard play of the same name. Princess Philoclea loves
shepherd Musidorus — and he loves her, too. Unfortunately, King
Basilius won’t sanction the union, for a working-class man is no
match for a royal.

In order to at least stay near his love, Musidorus pretends to be a
woman whom he hastily – and in honor of his love – names
Cleaphilo. That he’s big and burly doesn’t make anyone suspicious;
remember, Amazons were roaming the earth back then. And once
Musidorus dons a platinum wig, this blond has more fun.

When Shakespeare wrote female characters who pretended to be
male, he waited until the final moments of each play to unmask them. What’s refreshing here is that Philoclea catches on that Cleaphilo is Musidorus even before Act One ends.

Basilius doesn’t and takes a shine to the new woman. Queen Gynecia
does too, for she’s been seeking “a male of reckless quality.”

Princess Pamela, the older daughter, is a voluptuous lass whose self-
esteem should be a role model to all. She sees nothing wrong with
her body; neither does Mopsa, the daughter of the king’s viceroy,
who hopes she can make Pamela hers.

That may not be possible, for Arcadia isn’t accustomed to such
relationships. Pamela won’t let that mindset stand in her way and lets
her heart rule.

Deities show up in such stories, so Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi,
makes a dramatic entrance. She has her say and way with all the
characters. Here director Michael Mayer delivered some inspired
casting: Peppermint, a genuine male-to-female trans-woman, is the
perfect choice to play the sexually ambiguous god. When questioned,
she hisses “My quality TRANSSSSS-cends your rude opinion.”

So HEAD OVER HEELS offers gender-fluidity that’s as forceful as
Niagara Falls. In my two trips to see the show, I’ve witnessed
audiences enjoying this facet of the musical as much as the wacky
plot, endearing characters, pulsating melodies and game actors.

For all the emphasis on late-20 th -century rock, someone on the
premises knows the 1944 Cole Porter song from SEVEN LIVELY ARTS
called “Is It the Girl (Or Is It the Gown)?” That line actually shows up
in the book. So does “Promise you’ll never go away again” which
we’d heard for most of 2017 and 2018, thanks to the Tony-winning
revival of HELLO, DOLLY!

Alas, a cast album can only take you so far. During “Vacation” you’ll
miss Pamela (the self-assured Bonnie Milligan) replicating Botticelli’s
“The Birth of Venus.” If Andrew Durand sounds a little strange mid-
way through “Mad about You,” it’s because on stage he has his right
leg atop one very tall rolling unit and his left on another – and then ensemble members start rolling them in opposite directions and stretching him. Not so dissimilarly, at the end of “Cool Jerk” Rachel
York as Queen Gynecia does a split and lands on the floor. The look
of surprise on her face that she can still accomplish such a maneuver
should be seen and savored.

And yet, a cast album is invaluable to those who can’t get to
Broadway. There are no fewer than twenty-five cities and towns in
this country named Arcadia, but even the closest – although it’s in
New York State – is still 309 long miles away from Broadway.

But after hearing all the fun the cast is having with The Go-Go’s,
even those in Arcadia, California – 2,791 miles from The Hudson
Theatre – may be inclined to get a plane ticket and go-go.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com.
He can be heard most weeks of the year on
www.broadwayradio.com.