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Theatre in Review: Head Over Heels (Hudson Theatre)

The company. Photo: Joan Marcus

A heartfelt question for our musical theatre makers: Doesn't anyone write characters anymore? Seemingly not; the only shows to open in the last several weeks featuring actual, recognizable human behavior have been Twelfth Night and Desperate Measures, both of them based on Shakespeare. Otherwise, our musical stages have recently been populated by singing humanoids invented only to fulfill the demands of notably flimsy plots. A couple of weeks ago saw the opening of This Ain't No Disco, a showbiz fable set at the old Studio 54 filled with characters so unidimensional they could pass for medieval icons of innocence and corruption. Now comes Head Over Heels, in which a bunch of question marks in Elizabethan ruffs and pannier dresses romp through a theatrical Arcadia, pursuing love in spite of frequent gender confusion. Julian Crouch's painted scenery is deliberately flat; so, it appears, are the people standing in front of it.

Yes, yes, I hear you; it's a light, fizzy musical, a just-for-fun farce, a format that doesn't encourage the probing of souls. Fair enough, but the responsibility still exists to give us figures with whom we can feel some sort of engagement. Instead, the creators offer a series of convolutions designed to sell a message of sexual and gender inclusiveness, with little regard for anything else. It's possible to be thoroughly in sympathy with their intentions and still be bored by the frantic doings at the Hudson.

The plot, which has passed through many hands, tries to merge the conventions of Elizabethan comedy with modern sexual-identity issues and a vintage pop catalogue, and its apples-and-oranges pairing with the hit songs of The Go-Go's breeds its own distinctive form of puzzlement. It is derived, more or less, from The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, a prose work by Sir Philip Sidney (1590), although it is more closely aligned with James Shirley's dramatization, The Arcadia (1640), which borrows only some elements of Sidney's endlessly involved narrative. The book was conceived and written by Jeff Whitty, although the version at the Hudson represents a revision by James Magruder. I've never read Sidney's original -- who among us has? -- but I'm betting that it didn't contain so many vagina jokes.

Anyway, Head Over Heels whisks us to Arcadia, where peace and prosperity reign, thanks to the presence of some indefinable quality known as "the beat." This is so because one of the biggest Go-Go's hits is "We Got the Beat," and it has to go somewhere, so why not up front? Conflict arrives in the form of a prophecy from the new Delphic Oracle, a nonbinary being named Pythio, who predicts all sorts of trouble unless Basilius, the smug, self-satisfied king, gets his act together. Instead, clueless white heterosexual male that he is, he takes it on the road, dispatching his entire court to Bohemia as a way of avoiding future calamities. Meanwhile, Pamela, his elder daughter, who has turned down every available prince in the known world, begins to notice the longing glances that Mopsa, her lady-in-waiting, is throwing her way. Philoclea, the younger daughter, falls for Musidorus, a shepherd. When Basilius, in a flagrant act of classism, banishes him, Musidorus returns in the guise of an Amazon warrior; his combination of blonde tresses and boyish figure makes him catnip to various women and men.

With lines written in mock-classical style ("The siege of your maidenhead has lasted longer now than the sack of Palmyra!"), Head Over Heels was always going to be heavy going, but the college-show antics consistently aim low. Most of the jokes are redolent less of poetic pastoral scenes and more of Minsky's backstage. Musidorus' rendition of "Mad About You" is backed by a chorus of lusty male sheep. His female impersonation is discovered when he is caught urinating standing up. Pamela writes love poetry, such as the following: "Whether thou be a knight or knave/A giant or a runt/Thou shalt not win my maidenhead/Unless thou hast a --," with the last word being drowned out by the blare of trumpets. Basilius, having fallen for Musidorus in feminine guise, leers, "Yes, you and I: a matched set/Warmed by the fire at my hunting lodge/After a fine day spent thrusting our javelins/Gutting the kill, and boning the meat," emphasizing "thrusting" and "gutting," just in case somebody in the back row of the balcony doesn't get it.

Such lame jokes aside, it's true that the plot of Head Over Heels is no frothier than the sort of fun and games featured in the vintage musicals of the pre-Oklahoma! era. But those shows were populated with clowns who knew how to take care of themselves -- often interpolating their own specially branded bit of business -- and the pasteboard ingenues had dedicated music and lyrics that allowed them to express a range of feelings. Here, the comedy of mistaken identity falls flat because the characters barely have any identity to begin with. And the admittedly catchy Go-Go's songs have little to offer; they got the beat, all right, but it's the same beat, repeatedly, for two full acts. And the joke of pairing peppy new wave anthems with the courtly love conventions of an earlier century quickly pales.

Michael Mayer's direction -- given a crucial assist by Spencer Liff's kicky, angular choreography -- works hard to keep this soap bubble floating, and his cast makes the most of their limited opportunities. Rachel York is a towering presence as Gynecia, Basilius' increasingly fed-up queen, singing powerfully as always, and neatly executing the splits. Jeremy Kushnier could phone in the role of the pretentious Basilius, but instead he gives it his all. It's sad to see the two of them stuck in a crude, smirky bit of business in which they are seen, via silhouette, in a frantic sexual encounter, unaware of each other's identity. Bonnie Milligan earns some legitimate laughs as the hugely entitled Pamela -- although she needs a better establishing number than "Beautiful," which only restates the obvious -- and Andrew Durand shows a real knack for farce as the earnest Musidorus, who, dressed in female drag, has to extricate himself from one attempted seduction after another. As Philoclea, his true love, Alexandra Socha has little of interest to do; at least Taylor Iman Jones, in the similarly underwritten role of Mopsa, gets to sing "Vacation," amusingly staged on a tiny desert island with a chorus of mermaids. Tom Alan Robbins has some deadpan fun as the King's head adviser and all-around voice of reason. As the oracle, Peppermint, a popular graduate of RuPaul's Drag Race, still appears to be settling into the role.

The action takes place in what appears to be a Jacobean playhouse for which Crouch has unfurled a delightful series of vintage-looking drops depicting Greco-Roman architecture, verdant fields, and colorful skies. The imagery is wittily augmented by Andrew Lazarow's projections: an underground cave crawls, literally, with snakes. Arianne Phillips' costumes cleverly push period silhouettes to the point of absurdity, adding ruffles, mirrors, and other details to further extend the effect. The chorus is dressed for action, with the males sporting vast ruffles with no shirts underneath. I'm sorry to say that someone has encouraged the gifted lighting designer Kevin Adams to bathe the action in lava flows of saturated color that, all too often, offend the eye; nobody does bright, poppy lighting better than he, and I am forced to conclude that he is catering to his director's whims. Kai Harada's sound design, working with Tom Kitt's buoyant arrangements, guarantee that the lyrics are thoroughly intelligible -- a gift when the song is a ballad like "Automatic Rainy Day," less so when it is "Cool Jerk."

Then again, the latter number works well enough as a staging ground for several plot complications. Also, "Our Lips Are Sealed" functions fairly deftly as the backdrop for a number of clandestine romances. But Head Over Heels never knows where it's coming from -- the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; an MTV broadcast; or jukebox Broadway -- and its let-everyone-love-whom-they-want message is cheering but hardly novel in today's theatre. It's all dressed up but its characters have nowhere to go. -- David Barbour

(3 August 2018)

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