What does it mean to be transgressive in an upside-down era of lies-are-truth and believing-is-not-seeing? When black comedy and satire can’t possibly compete against the real-life farce confronting us with each morning’s headlines? In such times, simple acts of reason can demand the fearlessness of civil disobedience, while in art, what once seemed transgressive now may fall flat as mere comedy when we really need a dose of something stronger.
The new rock musical Head Over Heels, which has opened on Broadway at the Hudson after developmental productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Powerhouse Theater and San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, is puppyishly transgressive. It works feverishly, relentlessly, to challenge our notions of “normalcy” – regarding sex, desire, love and authority, among other ideas – while delivering its lessons with a conspiratorial nod. It wants us to love it, and learn from it, and feel good about ourselves, all of which, in the end, are a challenge.
The setting is the Greek region of Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century poem of that name, which concerns a king who, in order to circumvent the dire prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi, relocates with his wife, daughters and retinue to a distant region, Bohemia-bound. You might call them immigrants seeking asylum. But the obstacles facing them have more in common with the contrivances of Shakespearean romance than any horrors faced by today’s refugees. Here in the welcoming forest, lovers are separated and reunited while men impersonate women and women fall in love with each other and all is resolved in a pageantry of weddings and reconciliations.
In an earlier time, a Charles Ludlam might have offered a savage travesty of this story, and in a classical sense, Head Over Heels is a travesty. It was the idea of show’s conceiver, Jeff Whitty, to work the songs of the all-female rock group The Go-Go’s into the narrative, turning the show (named for one of the group’s big hits) into a big old party. Think Xanadu or The Boys from Syracuse or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or By Jupiter. Although I’m inclined to recall a lost-to-history comedy called The Meeting of the Creditors of J. Matthew Spengler, about a Broadway producer trying to raise money for a musical version of Beowulf called Rockabye Hrothgar, I’ve seen Rockabye Hrothgar. Head Over Heels is no Rockabye Hrothgar. And it’s head over heels better than This Ain’t No Disco, this hot season’s other rock musical, and a sheer debacle.
Speaking of producers, Head Over Heels has enough of them to fund a good-will army of political correctitude. Apparently, everyone wanted to be invited to the party. The Go-Go’s themselves, most of them long gone after some contentious years, reunited for several events promoting the show, and God they were fun, the quintet powering through the title number and “Vacation,” “Mad About You” and “Automatic Rainy Day,” which are used in the show.
Eventually, however, we must come to the musical at hand, and much as I wanted to love it, its good intentions and terrific songs don’t add up to a good time. That will come as a surprise, no doubt, to the generous fans at the performance I attended. But a heavily revamped script (by James Magruder) and the attentions of one of Broadway’s top directors of energetic musicals, Michael Mayer, have resulted in something game but witless, a show that wears out its welcome even before the early singing of “Get Up and Go.”
It’s certainly not for want of trying on the part of a terrific cast led by Jeremy Kushnier and Rachel York as the king and queen, and Bonnie Milligan and Alexandra Socha as their spouse-seeking spawn. The Oracle is played by Peppermint. Andrew Durand, as the love object of Socha’s character and seen in various guises, mostly steals the show.
Julian Crouch’s cartoony sets and Arianne Phillips’ jokey costumes set the tone, and it never lets up. We’re in on the wink-wink from the go-go. It’s all in good humor and excellent taste and unimpeachable consciousness. There’s nothing remotely transgressive about it. Et in Arcadia ego; get me outta here.