If Ron Chernow’s weighty biography “Hamilton” seemed an unlikely source for a smash hit musical, how much more unexpected is it that Philip Sidney’s 1590 five-book epic, “The Arcadia,” should be the source material for the deliciously hilarious “Head Over Heels?”
Sidney’s tale is ponderous, to say the least, and getting through the Middle English of the original is heavy work indeed. Parts of its elaborate plot were even lifted by Shakespeare for “King Lear,” leaving mountains of material behind. As conceived by Jeff Whitty, who wrote the original book, and adapted by James Magruder, “Head Over Heels” is an explosion of over-the-top silliness, color, and exuberance.
More importantly, director Michael Mayer and choreographer Spencer Liff bring such intelligence and comic brilliance to the whole undertaking that this high-energy great time is the first solid hit of the new Broadway season. And as you may know, the whole shebang is set to the songs of the Go-Go’s. So, while one might be tempted to call this a jukebox musical, it’s really in a class by itself. In fact, in its comic sense and vaudevillian antics, it’s reminiscent of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which was based on the plays of Plautus.
The plot is a hodgepodge of tricks and tropes that include royal weddings, threats from oracles, disguises, surprise revelations… and sex. Lots of sex. All you really need to know going into this is that the land of Arcadia is defined by its own beat. We know this because the fantastic opening number is, in fact, the Go-Go’s hit “We Got the Beat.” When King Basilius learns that his country and his court are at risk of losing the beat, they try to outrun the warnings of Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. It doesn’t work out quite as well as he hoped.
Sprinkled in all of this are tales of a lowly shepherd disguised as an Amazon warrior, a straying wife, and the awakened passions of a daughter being married off for the good of the country. To anyone with even a passing knowledge of favorite Elizabethan plots, much of this will seem familiar, but the writers have updated this with some delightful gender-bending surprises and a contemporary sense of humor both witty and broad. There are also nods to Sidney’s original language as the shepherd Musidorus declaims in florid prose, only to have everyone yell, “Speak English!” The songs seem to fit organically into the piece, which is no small feat, and part of the fun is anticipating which one is next as the plot works up to it. Tom Kitt has done a great job orchestrating and arranging the songs so they feel consistent within the context of the score and maintain the brightness and energy of the originals.
The company is wonderful. Notably, Broadway veteran Rachel York is hilarious as Gynecia, wife to King Basilius. She plays the broad sex comedy perfectly as Gynecia lusts after Musidorus after she realizes the Amazon is a guy. Bonnie Milligan is wonderful as the vain older sister Pamela who resists being married off, only to discover that her true love is her waiting woman Mopsa, a delightful Taylor Iman Jones. Alexandra Socha is terrific as Philoclea, the younger, plainer daughter who’s in love with Musidorus and determined to marry him over the objection of her father. As Musidorus, Andrew Durand delivers a superb comic performance that balances the endearing and the ridiculous. Peppermint as the oracle Pythio is great. She has the distinction of being the first transgender woman to create a principal Broadway role, and she does so with verve, presence, and unmistakable style.
“Head Over Heels,” funny as it is, never veers into camp, staying true to its admittedly contrived plot. In a comic context, the piece takes important themes of gender identity and acceptance very seriously.
It’s no spoiler to note that in true Elizabethan fashion after all the hijinks are over, identities revealed, true lovers united, and wrongs righted, Arcadia has come to see itself in a new light — one where everyone is loved for who they are and how they understand themselves. That may be wishful thinking in real life, but, then, this is a musical and, for sheer joy, you can’t beat that.
Speaking of joy, the rush of color, music, and community feeling bubbling through the Delacorte in the new, musical version of “Twelfth Night” is thrilling and inspiring. The 90-minute adaptation created by Shaina Taub, who created last year’s splendid adaptation of “As You Like It,” is part of the Public Theater’s Public Works program. Forming partnerships with arts organizations throughout the city, the Public runs workshops and much more, and members appear with professional actors in the Central Park production.
Taub’s setting of “Twelfth Night” was first seen in 2016 and, under the direction Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah, it’s a joyful romp through a favorite Shakespeare play, enlivened with Taub’s original music and rich and clever lyrics that complement the romance and comedy of the play. In this production, Taub also serves as music director and plays the fool Feste.
Well over one hundred people in all fill out the cast — in two alternating ensembles. The principals, in addition to Taub, make up the professional company that includes the sparkling and gamine Nikki M. James as Viola, the woman who disguises herself as a man, Cesario, to serve the Duke Orsino in his suit to Olivia. Olivia, a compelling Nanya-Akuki Goodrich, will have none of the Duke but Cesario catches her eye. When Sebastian, Viola’s fraternal twin played by the charismatic Troy Anthony, shows up, confusion and comedy ensue as Olivia takes him for Cesario, Orsino rages, and Viola gets all bolloxed up.
The comics are played by Shuler Hensley as Olivia’s hard partying uncle Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Hall as the lovesick Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Patrick J. O’Hare as Fabian. As Malvolio, Olivia’s puritanical steward, Andrew Korber is wonderfully funny, breaking into a production number about his eventual marriage to Olivia that brings the entire company on stage. As revenge for tamping down on their revelry, Malvolio has been tricked by Toby, Andrew, and the rest into thinking he’s beloved.
The text has been well cut, and the entire production staged to take best advantage of the huge company and make this Illyria an exceptionally appealing destination.
HEAD OVER HEELS | Hudson Theater, 141 W. 44th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun 3 at p.m. | $49-$299 at thehudsonbroadway.com or 855-801-5876 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission
TWELFTH NIGHT | Delacorte Theater, Central Park | Through Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. | Free at publictheater.org | Ninety mins.