The infectious punk-pop sounds of The Go-Go’s and the Renaissance poetry of Sir Philip Sidney come together in the new musical Head Over Heels, running at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre through May 6th, before its transfer to Broadway. Fast-paced, often hilarious, Head Over Heels, directed by Michael Mayer (who also helmed American Idiot, Spring Awakening, Hedwig) with book by Jeff Whitty (based on The Arcadia by Sidney, an English Renaissance Romance), music director Tom Kitt, and choreographer Spencer Liff, follows a group of Arcadians, led by King Basilus (played by Jeremy Kushner), who voluntarily leave their homeland to escape four dire prophesies as pronounced by the Oracle of Delphi (Peppermint of RuPaul’s Drag Race, in what will be the Broadway debut of a transgender woman creating a principal role). In exile, the group engages in various amorous trysts and deceits as well, and despite efforts to the contrary, ends up fulfilling the prophecies they so desperately sought to evade, learning valuable lessons along the way. Often hilarious, sometimes silly, always sumptuously designed, featuring selected hits of The Go-Go’s, the show deserves to be seen prior to its departure for NYC, despite a few glitches.
Its difficult to pick the main standouts of the show—cast members are uniformly excellent, as are the musical direction and choreography—but the set design by Julian Crouch is brilliant, start to finish. Basing his design on Renaissance and Baroque design and stage machinery, all scenes, whether in the Palace in Arcadia, The Oracle’s Temple, The Forest, the Isle of Lesbos, or other locales, are set on sliding, perspectival flats, often bathed in golden hues: think Inigo Jones or Giacomo Torrelli meet Maxfield Parrish. A giant serpent descends from the ceiling; white fabric turns the stage into the sea, or the scrim has lights back-projected onto it, illuminating actors dancing as a multi-armed Shiva, or performing the beast with two backs. The only set that jars is the Isle of Lesbos, which features a bit too much of everything. From the lighting by Kevin Adams, to costumes by Arianne Phillips, to the sound design by Kai Harada, all technical aspects of Head Over Heels stand out, working together in a kind of post-post modern unity.
Bonnie Milligan as Pamela, Andrew Durand as Musidorus, Rachel York as Gynecia, Kushner, and Alexandra Socha as Philoclea: all the actors and the ensemble are also outstanding. The singing is spot on, the choreography and dancing excellent, the acting broad yet effective, though still finding its rhythm in places. Perhaps one niggling point could be the underutilization of Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa, who also serves as a narrator of sorts. The first act, at almost an hour-and-a-half, struggles at times with focus, as important moments in the story seem to get lost amongst the spectacle, song and jokes. It’s not for lack of trying: the first act runs along at break-neck speed. Perhaps it’s a question of pacing and letting the show run itself into form. But the effervescent and dynamic Jones might possibly have been utilized more effectively as narrator here. Likewise, the central conceit of the Arcadians having “the beat” (from the Go-Go’s hit “We Got the Beat”), and then losing it, seems a bit awkward. However, by the time the story reaches a climax in the much shorter Act Two, the show feels tighter, perhaps even a little rushed, but with key moments identified and hit.
The show has the feel has the feel of a Shakespearean comedy, iambic pentameter verse and song (except for those by The Go-Go’s), gender switching and confused identities. Director Mayer and his cast and crew have handled the complexities of the show well. If the first act can find its focus, they may well have a Broadway hit on their hands.
Through May 6th at the Curran.