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Tuesday - Sunday through February 17, $35 - $274
Sir Philip Sidney’s 1590 drama The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia has been transformed into the giddy get-up-and-go musical Head Over Heels, running through next February at the Hudson Theatre. James Magruder has adapted the Shakespeare-like Elizabethan prose work, about forbidden love, patriarchal society, mistaken identity, and prophecy, into a bawdy, ribald tale, a modern-day celebration of gay and transgender culture that is neither didactic nor facetious. Oh, and it’s all set to classic songs and deep cuts by the Go-Go’s — Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey — whose tunes fit right into the story, with nary a word needing to be changed. In the land of Arcadia, King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) and Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) are leading the annual festivities paying tribute to “the beat,” their divine legacy that brings order to their lives. “We heed its rhythm and follow its form,” Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), the king’s older daughter, says. “It keeps us in line and dictates the norm,” adds Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins), the king’s viceroy. Shortly before a tournament in which eligible bachelors will parade for Pamela’s hand, Gynecia zeroes in on younger daughter Philoclea’s (Alexandra Socha) increasing closeness with the Eclogue-speaking shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand). The queen forbids her daughter from marrying the peasant, explaining, “Too many turns of the hourglass make / Us forget the unscripted pleasures of / Free-feeling youth and doth render us all / Conservative in thought and policy.” That conservative thinking is about to be upended when Pamela is wooed by Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), her maiden and Dametas’s daughter; Musidorus disguises himself as a female Amazon called Cleophila, attracting Basilius and Gynecia; and Pythio (Peppermint), the Oracle of Delphi who identifies as “a nonbinary plural,” warns the king and Dametas that “Arcadia is in peril,” delivering a four-part prophecy about the royal family and the future of the crown. As the riddle-like predictions start coming true, chaos threatens the kingdom amid an epidemic of 1960s-era free love.
Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) infuses Tony winner Jeff Whitty’s (Bring It On: The Musical, Avenue Q) splendid book with genuine heart and soul as the well-developed characters proceed to their fates. Pulitzer and Tony winner Tom Kitt’s (Next to Normal, American Idiot) orchestrations are at times so faithful to the Go-Go’s songs that it occasionally sounds like the actors are singing to the original recordings, but they are in fact played live by conductor and musical director Kimberly Grigsby on keyboards, Ann Klein and Bess Rogers on guitars, Catherine Popper on bass, and Dena Tauriello on drums. Emmy nominee Spencer Liff’s (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) playful choreography doesn’t overdo things, while Julian Crouch’s set design is fun and imaginative, with painted moving cardboard backdrops and a giant python’s heavenly descent. And the superb cast looks great in Arianne Phillips’s exuberant, eye-catching period costumes as the actors recite lines in verse and then belt out such Go-Go’s hits as “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” and Carlisle’s “Mad About You,” which becomes the show’s musical theme. In addition, at many a sudden romantic twist, a lightning-quick snippet of “Skidmarks on My Heart” comes and goes.Head Over Heels never gets bogged down in its welcoming message of diversity and the need for people to “reveal their authentic selves,” although neither is it shy about making its points. “Please ventilate the belfry of thy mind,” Pamela says to Mopsa. “How is gender germane to the discussion?” Pythio asks Basilius. It all comes together beautifully in a sensational production that is no mere jukebox musical but so much more. Curiously, Head Over Heels is having trouble selling tickets; hopefully it will find an audience, so get thee haste to the Hudson, where a fabulous time is to be had by all.