Review: Ye Olde Go-Go’s Songs Hit the Renaissance in ‘Head Over Heels’

You would think that a sexually polymorphous musical that combines a Renaissance pastoral romance with the songs of the 1980s California rock group the Go-Go’s would at the very least be a hoot, a show that could get sloppy drunk on its own outrageousness. Yet “Head Over Heels,” which opened on Thursday night at the Hudson Theater, feels as timid and awkward as the new kid on the first day of school.

Make that the new kid who longs to run with the wild crowd but can’t quite commit to being as bad as coolness demands. Directed by Michael Mayer, who has been more than competent at the helm of Broadway rock musicals like “American Idiot” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Head Over Heels” lacks the courage of its contradictions. It mutters deferentially when what you want is a rebel yell.

Paradox is at the heart of this production, which was conceived and originally written by Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), then adapted by James Magruder (best known for his stage versions of literary classics). It was Mr. Whitty who had the idea of reimagining Philip Sidney’s “The Arcadia,” a 16th-century fantasy of trouble in paradise, as a picturesque frame for the pop hits of the Go-Go’s.

That all-female band, as you may know (and if you don’t, you are not this production’s target audience), rode its rough-edged combination of punk riotousness and surfer-girl sunniness to the top of the pop charts in the early 1980s. Though many of their hits ponder the vagaries of love, they otherwise have little in common with an arcane literary universe that is usually the province of graduate students.

Still, this shotgun wedding of song and script promised to be a piquant novelty among jukebox musicals, a form that has been multiplying (and dividing) like amoebas since the Abba-stoked “Mamma Mia!” conquered the world. And its dichotomous nature matches the didactic thrust of a show that celebrates the importance of not being (and pardon me, for trotting out what’s starting to feel like the decade’s most overused word) binary.

In addition to straddling the gaps between historical eras — and high and low, and stately iambic pentameter and swift-kick rock rhymes — “Head Over Heels” also suggests that the divide between the sexes is the healthiest place for human beings to live. Its most catalytic character is Musidorus (an ingratiatingly incompetent Andrew Durand), a lowly shepherd whose love for the Princess Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) leads him to don the disguise of an Amazon (and if you think I mean the e-tailer, you are really not the target audience).

In his womanly warrior guise, Musidorus becomes the lust object of Philoclea’s parents, Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier), the king of Arcadia, and his queen, Gynecia (Rachel York), a restless castle wife with feminist stirrings. In the meantime, the pair’s elder daughter, a provocatively cast Bonnie Milligan, trampling with throwaway casualness on pretty princess stereotypes, finally figures out why she isn’t remotely interested in the many princely suitors who seek her hand.

Why? Well, as she discovers while composing a poem to her ideal, unknown mate, her love would need to have a part of the anatomy that rhymes with “China.” (The script abounds in elbow-to-ribs dialogue, with lines like “My secret cave you penetrate.”) Pamela finally realizes that her true love is her own loyal, boyishly dressed handmaiden, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), whose performance of “Vacation” with a chorus of mermaids and leaping fish is by default the show’s musical high point.

These assorted role reversals are overseen by the wise oracle Pythio (Peppermint, a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” described in the program as “the first transgender woman to create a principal role” on Broadway). Pythio identifies as “nonbinary plural.” Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the King’s viceroy and father of Mopsa, finds himself strangely drawn to her — I mean them.

Characters clash, split and recombine in the time-honored tradition of Shakespeare’s great cross-dressing comedies “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It.” The background for such melting identities is a picturesque, willfully artificial Arcadian vale by Julian Crouch (which makes deft use of pornographic silhouettes), with costumes to match by Arianne Phillips.

And where, you may ask, does the music of the Go-Go’s fit into ye olde Renaissance Faire and Camp Grounds? Songs like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Mad About You” (actually, a later solo hit for the group’s former lead, Belinda Carlisle), and the title number could slide into almost any story about the follies of love.

“We Got the Beat,” the number for which the group is best known (and which opens the show), is a less easy fit, a song of defiant exhilaration that is here used to suggest the metronomic nature of Basilius’s tradition-bound kingdom. (The genre-bending, generally soporific musical arrangements and orchestrations are by Tom Kitt.)

But, hey, that’s what jukebox musicals do: shoehorning in songs. It’s not as if pop hits haven’t been translated into period costume before. Think of the rococo video of Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass” or Madonna doing “Vogue” in 18th-century “Liaisons Dangereuses” drag. It makes sense that Spencer Liff’s choreography borrows so repetitively from the vogueing routines of drag shows appropriated by Madonna.

What’s lacking in the musical performances here is the go-for-broke exuberance that made the Go-Go’s so irresistible. While Ms. Milligan’s Pamela cuts loose and loud for a scenery-flinging “How Much More,” the songs are mostly delivered with diffidence, as if the cast were saving its energy for some undetermined Big Event.

Only Ms. York, a Broadway veteran, pounces on her role with the precise attack that’s demanded. Peppermint, as might be expected, strikes a pose with aplomb and alacrity.

In a way, Peppermint is the most naturally cast performer. That’s because “Head Over Heels” is at heart a tamed version of the period spoofs made popular decades earlier by drag artists like Charles Ludlam and, later, in floor shows at the Pyramid Club. (I found myself thinking particularly of “When Queens Collide,” Ludlam’s intergalactic variation on Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine,” revived last year at La MaMa.)

Those shows were considerably more ragged than “Head Over Heels” — as I might add, were the Go-Go’s in performance. But such works owned their raggedness, with a rip-roaring brazenness and glee that exploded gender and good taste into smithereens.

Mining the same territory, “Head Over Heels” is more carefully and consciously instructive. In the first act, Musidorus stumbles upon a set of skeletons, which are accompanied by the written warning that “These sad remains are of our theater troupe, starved for lack of serious message.”

No such criticism could be applied to “Head Over Heels.” But its audience might leave the theater less hungry if this oddly earnest show could really kick up its heels and let the message take care of itself.

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