Down the street, straight white men may have an entire show, but here in Arcadia, it’s no straights allowed.
Imagine it: Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th century tale The Arcadia combined with the rock music of the 80s girl group, The Go-Go’s. Admittedly, it’s not a likely combination, but somehow Jeff Whitty thought of it and gave birth to “Head Over Heels,” which opened at the Hudson Theatre on Thursday. The production, directed by Michael Mayer, may be a period piece but it certainly isn’t stuffy or old fashioned in any way.
Our story concerns the King and Queen of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier and Rachel York), and their daughters Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha). Things turn sour quickly as Pamela rejects her rich suitors, Philoclea wants to marry a shepherd (Andrew Durand), and the King is given a prophecy about the fall of kingdom, delivered by the oracle, Pythio (Peppermint, of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 9 fame).
If you seem a bit overwhelmed, that’s natural. To this Renaissance plot add famous rock hits “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” (played by Broadway’s first-ever all female band). Then add 16th century costumes, flimsy cardboard sets, modern choreography, and a sexy, queer, scantily-clad ensemble.
But wait, there’s more: Pamela falls in love with her maid, Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), the shepherd becomes a drag queen, and the oracle Pythio comes out as non-binary. We are certainly not in 16th century Arcadia anymore, Toto (or should I say, Go-Go?).
To somehow make this all work, the musical embraces it’s own ridiculousness, playing into every campy element possible. Perhaps it’s too campy, but in an age where “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” is a box office smash, maybe camp is exactly what we all want right now. Maybe in these dark political times, camp is what we need. Who knows, this might me the dawning of a new age of High Camp.
Although the show often references its own preposterousnesss and goes out of its way to be campy, it is hard to look past some of its larger flaws. Most odious among them are its book, recently adapted by James Magruder. Despite the new changes, it is still riddled with seemingly never-ending scenes spoken in iambic pentameter.
The painful book scenes are somewhat tolerable in the first act, which has enough memorable production numbers to keep the audience alert. But the second act has far too many scenes, far too few songs, and has a major issue with tone: a duel to the death and an extended funeral song just doesn’t scream “fun and campy musical.”
The combination of modern choreography by Spencer Liff, tacky period costumes by Arianne Phillips, and far too cheap-looking sets by Julian Crouch are equally jarring. The failures of this musical seemed avoidable. Look at “Something Rotten,” “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and “The Plays That Goes Wrong”— all of which successfully combine period piece source texts, camp, old costumes, and sets that are meant to look low budget.
Despite all it flaws — and it certainly has many — the audience has an amazing time. This may have something to do with the fact the bar is selling full bottles of wine for audience members to bring to their seats. Regardless of the alcohol consumption, the musical is worthy of significant praise for its progressiveness and for the representation it provides to queer people, drag performers, trans people, people of color, and more.
To start, the show features Peppermint, the first trans woman to originate a principal role on Broadway. But it gets better: her character is also trans*, and help to educate the public about transitioning, non-binary genders, living your authentic self, and the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” As expected, Peppermint is a transcendent goddess of fabulosity.
Next up: Princess Pamela. Quite simply, Bonnie Milligan is a star; she is fierce and hilarious and gorgeous and oh girl can she belt. She is a self-described big girl, and plays the beautiful princess, the prettiest girl in the land — creating perhaps the most body positive message in the history of Broadway. Her two major songs, “Beautiful” and “How Much More” are some of the best in the show; in the first she is self-obsessed with her beauty and in the second she belts while breaking props and sets in jealousy. Without a doubt, in “Head Over Heels” the big girl wins (sorry, Eureka). To add to this, in the course of the musical she discovers she is a lesbian, in love with her maid, who is played by a woman of color (Taylor Iman Jones).
But the sapphic love of Pamela and Mopsa is just one part of the romantic ending, our other couples include a princess in love with a shepherd-turned-drag queen and a viceroy (Tom Alan Robbins) falling in love again with his wife-turned-non-binary Oracle. That’s right: big girls, women of color, drag queens, and non-binary people can be sexy, have romantic relationships, and live happily ever after.
For a summer otherwise only marked by closing announcements, this new musical is an oasis in the desert. Maybe this musical is a bit messy, but it’s fun and it is doing some very important work for representation and visibility on Broadway. In “Head Over Heels” it seems like no one is straight, and thank god — it’s about time for a musical that takes place in a paradise where everyone is queer, racially diverse, and body positive.