Like one of its stars, Peppermint, Head Over Heels has a refreshing sense of self. A blend of 16th Century verse, music by 1970s pop stars The Go-Go’s, and an ultra modern “love is love is love” message, Broadway’s newest musical eludes “pegging”. Based loosely on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, the story follows King Basilius as he attempts to defy a prophecy delivered to him by Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. She declares four tragedies will befall his kingdom, each one signaled by a veil falling from the sky. Should all come to pass, the land is doomed. Determined to cheat fate, Basilius packs up his citizens and travels deep into the woods. Anyone who knows their way around a Greek myth can predict how successful the well-meaning ruler’s plan will be.
The Go-Go’s repertoire —including Mad about You, Cool Jerk and Vacation — contains many catchy ear-worms, but they are hardly known for their deep meaning. While the dialogue is often witty, characters sometimes tee-up the next production number by delivering forced lines. If hearing that what makes this kingdom distinctive is that they’ve “got the beat” makes you cringe, you should have second thoughts about purchasing tickets. On the other hand, if you find yourself going along with the playfulness, there is more where that came from.
There is none of the over amplification which dominates rock musicals and every word is clearly articulated. Many eyes will be on the aforementioned Peppermint, a fierce RuPaul Drag Race competitor and first “out” trans actress to develop a lead of a Broadway musical. Her Pythio may be the only character to literally sparkle, but she is not alone in that quality of performance. The cast – some of whom have been with the production since its early days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having one heck of a good time. In particular, Andrew Durand steals every scene he’s in as the sweet shepherd Musidorus on his road to self discovery and empowerment. Bonnie Milligan making her Broadway debut is another standout as the difficult and vain Pamela, the older of the king’s two daughters. She ably avoids becoming a tedious “fat joke” by infusing her character with gentle confusion which elicits compassion. She is well paired with Taylor Iman Jones’s Mopsa, her several-steps-ahead admirer.
Director Michael Mayer has his cast members veer towards the hammy, a superfluous move with this broad book created by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. The moments that are less heavy handed are also more visually exciting, including a seduction scene accomplished in shadows. The production design wonderfully captures the glow and fizz of The Go-Go’s heyday as well as the bejeweled styling of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Scenic designer Julian Crouch’s amusing backdrops include fake curtains and two dimensional trees in a pallet that is pure disco. Arianne Phillips picks up this mixture in her costume design in which half naked male suitors are topped with metallic ruffs, and bows are painted onto the princesses’ elaborate dresses. Hair and makeup by Campbell Young Associates complete the look to whimsical perfection.
Familiarity with The Go-Go’s is not essential, but it adds to those moments when distinctive guitar licks foreshadow an upcoming production number. Sadly, though, something is off with Kai Harada’s sound. It is admirable that the creative team chose to use only female band members, but their output lacks sufficient depth and energy. This becomes particularly noticeable upon exit when the original article can be heard throughout the lobby.
Perhaps because it’s a fun and flashy romp, Head Over Heels is attracting a particularly undisciplined audience to the Hudson Theater. The young woman next to me crackled her way through a large bag of gummy bears throughout the 2 hour 15 minute runtime, while the 60-something woman behind me got so drunk that by Act Two she was discussing the quality of the house wine with her friends in what can only be described as her outdoor voice. It may help you get into the proper mood by imagining yourself at the Globe with sawdust under your feet and jolly old England just outside the door. Tickets are on sale now through June 30, 2019 at https://headoverheelsthemusical.com.
A Letter to Harvey Milk
A Letter to Harvey Milk is a slightly flawed gem of a musical, giving voice to some little seen characters. The work is based on a Lesléa Newman’s short story which follows mildly eccentric but loving Jewish characters as they discover and embrace their identities as lesbians. In this case the seeker is Barbara, a Connecticut transplant earning a little extra money by teaching a writing class at the JCC in San Francisco. Her unexpected partner in self exploration is Harry, a widowed retired butcher who finds himself drawn to her classroom and her energy. What binds them is the titular letter that Harry composes as an assignment. The honest love and sincere appreciation expressed to his activist friend pulls Barbara into Harry’s story. She revels in the company of someone who is seemingly so comfortable with his choices. Their developing friendship takes them both to unexpected places.
Adam Heller and Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland
The book by by Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern and Laura I. Kramer provides enough detail to follow both Harry’s and Barbara’s struggles with love and loneliness. Throughout are two culturally significant threads about homosexuality and Judaism through time and in context. There are a few small gaps in logic such as how Barbara can be making any money with only one student, but those are easy to set aside. What doesn’t come through with sufficient clarity is the critical figure of Harvey Milk. He is painted in such broad strokes, those unfamiliar with his ground-breaking achievements will see a badly dressed kook with terrible eating habits. Perhaps the script suffered from too many cooks. Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz work better to move the story along and provide atmosphere. Music by Laura I. Kramer isn’t very memorable, but it does suit the words, particularly the Yankee Doodle Dandy treatment of some of Harvey’s most famous speeches.
Generally, the women in the cast outshine the men. Julia Knitel — who previously starred as Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful — has a soothing voice and magnificent articulation as she shapes Barbara’s story. As Frannie, Harry’s deceased wife who is by his side for the journey, co-lyricist Cheryl Stern is the comic relief, delivering Elaine Stritch-style patter and emphasis. And in her one big number, Aury Krebs is a dream. Michael Bartoli captures Harvey Milk’s patterns and mannerisms, but as described earlier, he isn’t given enough to work with. Supporting players Jeremy Greenbaum and CJ Pawlikowski do a fine job playing multiple roles. The weak link is Adam Heller who was off key as a singer and lacked sufficient variation as an actor. He has extensive Broadway experience, so perhaps it was just an off night.
Evan Pappas’s staging is clever, especially in the more intimate moments. The charming set by David L. Arsenault captures the feel of the Castro district of San Francisco complete with muted colors and a big Bay window. The orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Lodin, is perched on a balcony above so they are in view and adding to the ambiance. The costumes by Debbie Hobson are pitch-perfect, notably Barbara’s anklets and sweater vest and Frannie’s tidy suit. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting effectively changes color palette to the match the mood of each scene.
While A Little to Harvey Milk is still at a “great potential” stage of development, it is already a genuine crowd pleaser (for the right crowd) and impressive bang for the buck. Struggling with shame and the need for self-truth resonants even with those who are straight and/or gentile. It runs through May 13, 2018 at the Acorn, part of Theater Row. Tickets are $79 – $99 and can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.