The Go-Go’s were a significant portion of the soundtrack of my high school and college years. Their pop-punk songs managed to be both effervescent and gritty. Many of my peers dismissed them as pabulum, mainly due to their irresistible party song, “We Got the Beat.” (If a pop song is irresistible enough, there will be any number of teen-aged cranks who will proudly state their resistance. I know, I was one of those cranks, just not in this particular case.) But that didn’t stop my entire college dorm from borrowing my Beauty and the Beat album to make a cassette copy for their own use. And a song like “Our Lips Are Sealed” is both irresistible and smart. I’m an especial fan of their second album, Vacation, which Rolling Stone said was “the sound of women at work.” Amen.
If you’re going to make a jukebox musical using the Go-Go’s catalog, it needs to be a party. Love, romance, heartbreak, and jealousy can all be part of the mix, but at its base, the show needs to make you want to get up and dance. Head Over Heels, the new musical named after a song from the group’s 1984 album, Talk Show (their third), is such an odd combination of sources and styles, you wonder if it just might work. The story is adapted from Philip Sydney’s late 16th-century Elizabethan romance, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, the tale of Arcadian King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) who seeks to defy the dire prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi (the drag artist Peppermint), by taking his family—his wife the Queen (Rachel York), his two marriageable daughters—and his entire kingdom on the road. Conceived and originally written by Jeff Whitty (of Avenue Q fame) when it was presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, James Magruder (who wrote the script for the musical version of Marivaux’ The Triumph of Love) has adapted it anew for this pre-Broadway incarnation. (The show moves to New York directly after its San Francisco run.) Rock music applied to stories from other centuries has worked before, most notably in Spring Awakening. Head Over Heels features the same director, Michael Mayer, who also captained American Idiot and Hedwig and the Angry Inch for Broadway, so he knows a little something about rock musicals. The cast is an attractive and talented mix of newcomers and veterans (including, thankfully, York, who knows her way around a musical). The show features a six-piece, all-female band, with orchestrations by Tom Kitt, and the choreography is by the talented Spencer Liff, best known for So You Think You Can Dance.
Does it work? Almost none of it. It’s actually rather shocking that almost no one involved with this production understands the appeal of the Go-Go’s and their music. The show is over-written, over-designed, over-choreographed, and over-sung, and both the music and the show sink under the weight of all that effort. Magruder keeps the iambic pentameter of the original for the dialog, and most of the actors don’t have a facility with the verse. This is especially true for Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa, the servant who also serves as narrator. She gets the bulk of the rhyming couplets and appears to be the least able to deal with them. Mayer’s solution for his cast’s apparent inexperience is to have them recite the lines slowly, which only exacerbates the problem. Worse, Whitty and Magruder turn the show into a plea for (actually more of a sermon on) transgender acceptance. (Why are they pleading for it? Why don’t they just accept their transgender characters?) As the Oracle, Peppermint (a veteran of RuPaul’s Drag Race) seems slightly uncomfortable not performing her own material, and Andrew Durand, who actually acquits himself fairly well as the shepherd boy Musidorus, dons Amazon drag in order to be near the princess he loves, Philoclea (Alexandra Socha of the Amazon series Red Oaks, also fine.) Both of these characters explicitly plead for acceptance of their drag selves. But drag is not transgenderism (Peppermint’s bio identifies her as a transgender woman, demonstrating that there may be overlap), and no one goes to a musical for a sermon. (People see South Pacific in spite of the sermonizing.)
The show opens fairly well, with the ensemble performing “We Got the Beat” (of course), and the first few couplets contain enough jokes in them to make you hopeful. Julian Crouch’s set design, echoing the florid, meticulously painted drops and flats of earlier centuries, and costume designer Arianne Phillips rock-and-roll take on Elizabethan dress can be fun on their own terms at first, but as the show goes on, the relentless detail and décor feel overwhelming and heavy.
Liff’s choreography is, frankly, a disaster, fussy and over-conceived, with lots of vogue-ing and posing. The talented ensemble works and works (or “werks,” as the kids would say), but there’s never a feeling of joy or abandonment to the music. When I was young, a song by the Go-Go’s could get the entire room up and dancing. The cast has to beg the audience to stand up and join in at show’s end. Jerry Mitchell’s deceptively simple choreography for Hairspray matched the pop appeal of its score and made the audience want to be up there with the cast, having as much fun as they were. No such temptation arises in Head Over Heels.
The sound mix is also off so the vocals get lost under the music and have too much treble when they are audible. Perhaps the biggest problem is how the songs are performed. As in Mamma Mia!, the singers are encouraged to back phrase, in that fake-soul style so beloved by Broadway. Go-Go’s lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle had a straightforward, reedy vibrato that evoked the girl down the street, but could also soar when backed by her bandmates’ harmonies. Here, either Kitt or music director Kimberly Grigsby encourages everyone to ornament and wail, and even Socha adds a little coloratura to one number to make it more comic. The worst offenses are the duets between Taylor Iman Jones’ Mopsa and the eldest princess Pamela (Bonnie Milligan). The two try to out-belt and out-scream (or out-“screlt” as industry jargon would have it) each other, and it’s unbearable. The score uses two non-Go-Go’s songs more effectively, both of them post-group singles by Belinda Carlisle. “Mad About You” works because Durand sings it simply and sweetly, while “Heaven is a Place in Earth,” a song I loathe, is so bombastic it actually succeeds as camp, in line with all the other posturing (although the erotic shadow play it accompanies grows tiresome).
Thank god for consummate pro Rachel York, even though she really doesn’t have enough to do. There’s a tiresome recurring bit where when a character is struck by lust, the light’s change, the band plays a short sample of the song “Skidmarks on My Heart,” the actor thrashes around as if shocked, and then everything instantly returns to normal. (This is unfortunately the only use of “Skidmarks,” another great song.) For this to work, the sample needs to start and stop instantaneously, which is hard to do with a live orchestra, the thrashing needs to be precise, and everything needs to be timed perfectly. The bit works exactly once, when Rachel York does it. Her singing isn’t exempt from ornamentation, but she connects with the songs in a way that most of the rest of the cast doesn’t.
Even though I’d never get wealthy betting on the New York Times critics’ reactions, I can’t see this doing well on Broadway. It’s not another biographical catalog musical (hurrah), and it takes chances in its pairing of two disparate sources, but a show that evinces no understanding of the music it’s using as a score, and worse yet, isn’t any fun, is unlikely to pull in the crowds. Head Over Heels plods when it should float. The beat gets lost and never found.
Head Over Heels runs through May 6, 2018 at the Curran Theatre. For more information go to https://sfcurran.com/shows/head-over-heels/.