In “Head Over Heels,” Go-Go’s Hits and Elizabethan Drag Go Hand in Hand

Broadway’s latest jukebox musical is set to songs by the Go-Go’s and — somewhat surprisingly — it’s not about a group of young women seeking love and fame in Reagan-era, post-punk Los Angeles. You might have expected the producers to jerry-rig a trite, retro scaffolding that vaguely mirrored the iconic girl band’s trailblazing story. The creative team of Head Over Heels does go retro, but waaay retro, to achieve something rarer and wonderfully strange. They’ve found the Venn overlap among “We Got the Beat,” LGBTQ awakening, and Elizabethan allegory on humane statecraft.

Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) had long wanted to adapt Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia, a bonkers, five-book proto-novel from the 1580s that chronicled a king, an ominous oracle, a bed trick, and frustrated young lovers. Whitty found an unlikely excuse in this high-concept frolic, which started life at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. After show-doctoring and the addition of director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the piece now unfurls on Broadway as a polished yet touching fairytale rom-com that succeeds where so many catalogue tuners fail. Whitty’s book is silly and sweetly wise enough to transcend — nay, celebrate — the absurdity of Eighties pop in Elizabethan drag.

“Speak English, not eclogue,” goes an early wisecrack, which gets a laugh, even if the majority of audience members present don’t usually giggle at Early Modern Lit jokes. The dialogue is in iambic pentameter, a lilting mode that slides neatly into the bouncy Go-Go’s numbers and the occasional hit solo by lead singer Belinda Carlisle. I’m not going to argue that ditties such as “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” are examples of deathless songwriting, but damn if they don’t tickle the hippocampus of any kid who grew up on MTV when it was MTV. (Incidentally, if John Dowland is more your thing, consider how much the seventeenth-century lutenist has in common with the Go-Go’s universe: hidden passion, the melancholy of love, gossipy disapproval.)

For those who follow Broadway, Head Over Heels will seem like Something Rotten! borrowed teen angst from Spring Awakening and trans-themed fierceness from Hedwig. But it’s also a cautionary tale directed at our toxic-rightward-hetero times. King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) rules Arcadia as complacently as he lords it over his long-suffering wife, Gynecia (Rachel York, perfectly arch and tart), and daughters Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha). Vain and bossy Pamela is the “pretty” one, while shy and mild Philoclea is the universally proclaimed “plain” one. Despite the abundance of suitors ardently a-wooing (I found “shirtless, beruffed stud muffins” scribbled in my notes by way of description), Pamela isn’t interested. Convinced that a male heir is being delayed due to female conspiracy, Basilius consults the gender-neutral oracle Pythio (Peppermint, of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame) for advice. The monarch learns that one daughter will bed a liar, another will wed — but not a man, and the king’s wife will cuckold him. I haven’t even mentioned the tongue-tied shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand) loved by Philoclea, who’s scared off by the king and returns cleverly cross-dressed as an Amazon warrior.

That so much plot sits so lightly on the score is a testament to Whitty’s graceful book (adapted by James Magruder) and Tom Kitt’s elegant, rock-smart music direction. Spencer Liff’s twirl-tastic, high-kicking choreography keeps the bodies flowing, like club kids cutting a Renaissance galliard. The storybook sets by Julian Crouch (picturesque Roman ruins, giant snake messengers, flip-up mermaid tails) and the glam, transhistorical costumes by Arianne Phillips all contribute to a visual impact where goofiness and camp can still be artful and lovely to behold.

And looks — good, bad, deceiving, fleeting — are a great deal of what the show’s about. Speaking superficially, Milligan (as the “pretty” sister) is larger than the petite Socha (as the “plain” one), yet the show doesn’t make this into a joke, or turn its welcome inversion of typical Broadway-producer casting logic into a didactic point. (Milligan talked to earlier this week about being “a plus size actress getting to play the beautiful character where there’s nothing in the script about my size.”) Milligan simply, gorgeously, rules every scene she’s in, with a first-rate pop soprano and killer comic timing. In Head Over Heels, beauty is subjective and random, standards of desirability fluid and critiqued. When Pamela learns that her desires lean same-sexily, like toward her wry and sensible lady-in-waiting, Mopsa (a fabulous Taylor Iman Jones), it’s another reminder that we are all empty vessels into which love pours what juice it will.

There are gallons of insight smuggled into this giddy, liberated construction: the B-romance is a lesbian affair essentially given as much weight as that of Musidorus and Philoclea; the rebuke of patriarchy is righteous yet wrenching; and there’s a deep philosophical thread about the need to evolve past gendered, binary hierarchies. Shrewd, funny, sexy, and with a glorious beat, Head Over Heels will have you flipping for joy.

Head Over Heels
Hudson Theatre
139–141 West 44th Street
Open run


Bring It On: American Handstand

Back in the 1920s and ’30s, musical shows were silly and trivial. Audiences went to them to escape the grim realities of everyday life. Then the musical theater turned earnest. But American culture always has another trick up its sleeve: While the once-frivolous form was cranking up its dark sobriety, its target audience, nurtured by the increasing barrage of the electronic media, became ever more obsessed with trivialities, ever more eager to shove aside the serious matters it needed to confront. Reality? For most Americans, the word now means a genre of TV entertainment.

So now, comically enough, the musical theater can be trivial again, simply by applying its hard-won earnestness of outlook to the inane realities that we silly Americans seem to regard as important. Bring It On (St. James Theatre) perfectly exemplifies the new synthesis: a giddy old-style musical, but with new-style Sunday-school moral lessons tacked all over it, about a teenage girl whose one goal in life is to be captain of a high school cheerleading squad. We could be back in 1926, with the heroine of Rodgers & Hart’s The Girl Friend helping her beau train for the six-day bicycle race, except that the audience at the St. James is jammed with teenage girls for whom the cheerleader’s championship dream, if not their own, is at least one they can identify with emotionally—and vocally, to gauge by the response at the press performance I attended.

And their vocal seconding of the onstage rabble-rousing has some justification. A sort of Hairspray with backflips, Bring It On expresses its enthusiasm for love and team spirit with epic amounts of leaping and shouting, and repeated breathtaking stunts by human pyramids. Its story, as flimsy as a crepe paper streamer, has the mercy, in Jeff Whitty’s often sassy script, of tossing an occasional self-aware dart at its own inanity. Its score, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the team of Amanda Green and Tom Kitt, has a steady skillful amiability, rather than any great distinction, as it shifts from rock to hip-hop to items more like standard-issue show music. But this musical moderateness, in never venturing to the raw edges of the idioms it employs, is its source of wide appeal: This is hip-hop that doesn’t make older adult ears feel bruised. (Which, granted, means it probably isn’t “real” hip-hop, but when were Broadway musicals real anything, except Broadway musicals?)

Campbell (Taylor Louderman), Bring It On‘s heroine, views high school cheerleading as a “life or death” matter. Entering her senior year and about to realize her lifelong goal of captaining the cheer squad, she tells a sophomore trainee who has had a momentary attack of cold feet, “Being a cheerleader is like being a Marine. You signed your life away.” (One wonders how the Marine recruits who constantly shout “Semper Fi” in Dogfight would react to Campbell and her ilk.) But Campbell’s do-or-die path is beset with booby traps. Skylar (Kate Rockwell), her rival for the captaincy, keeps dropping one-liners that undercut her authority. And that seemingly nervous sophomore trainee, Eva (Elle McLemore), turns out to have high-powered connections. Their manipulations get Campbell transferred, through “redistricting,” from clean, complacent, upscale Truman High to Jackson, a school so “tough” that—oh, horror—it doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad.

Campbell starts off badly at Jackson, alienating the school’s queen of cool, Danielle (Adrienne Warren). But nothing worse happens to her, at this school populated largely by blacks and Latinos, unless you count her being nicknamed “Cream of Mushroom.” With the help of another redistrictee, her always-game, chunky gal pal Bridget (a bright, spunky performance by Ryann Redmond), Campbell fights her way into friendship with Danielle, and—after a few more setbacks, each tagged with a tidy moral lesson—even restores cheerleading and school spirit to Jackson.

Like the acrobatic dancers whose incessant somersaulting takes up so much of Andy Blankenbuehler’s production, the moral lessons in Whitty’s script land lightly, minute crunchy moments in the show’s dessert-sweet texture. The young performers throw themselves full-heartedly into the material, as you expect young performers to do, Louderman and Warren coming off particularly well. If David Korins’s set looks more like a rock video with a sci-fi motif than like actual life in American high schools today, the college-football musicals of the 1920s probably looked just as adorably unreal.



Bianca Leigh might be fresh off a killer season, as a core member of drag troupe Shim Mamsir and with starring roles in the Talking Band’s New Islands Archipelago and as the hourglass-figured Time in Taylor Mac’s epic The Lily’s Revenge, but she wasn’t always a commandingly gorgeous downtown theater actress. In fact, before she was an actress, Leigh was a professional dominatrix arrested for solicitation, and before that, she was a skinny boy from New Jersey with Shakespearean dreams. Leigh recounts how she got from one station in life to the next in her solo show, A Night at the Tombs. Mac, along with Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), Ellen Maddow, and Barb Morrison, provides the original soundtrack.

Thursdays, 8 p.m. Starts: June 24. Continues through July 8, 2010


NY Mirror

I am now going to prove my noble sense of ethics; my deep, resounding integrity; and my openness to write the most horrifying truths in the name of equal time. I am going to report information that suggests a major star might actually be straight! Just the thought of this sort of thing kills me (and worse, nauseates me), but fair is fair—if not fairy—so get out your barf bags, peel off your knee pads, and here goes:

VIN DIESEL has a hetero past! JAMES ST. JAMES—the Disco Bloodbath author who knew Vin when he was a mere doorman at the Tunnel—feels the action star doesn’t take it up the butt after all. “I hear the gay rumors too,” James tells me. “And he does look the part. But Mark, er, Vin, was always straight. And believably so. He would sing show tunes and flirt outrageously with me and the other drag queens, but he wasn’t overcompensating—he was totally comfortable with his heterosexuality. I remember the girls he fucked! Every queen at the Tunnel was always after him, and I would have heard it if one of them finally had him. Of course he was only 19—and maybe he’s come out. But I really think he’s straight!” Blecccccch!

Pride and Prejudice

As the star of The Chronicles of Limp Dick—calm down, Michael—let me regroup and go back to my insular world of out queens playing fast and furious with each other’s Lubriderm. In fact, it’s so insular I’m the only one I know who went to the Gay Pride parade (though it drew swarms of other eye-popping, rhinestone-wearing DUBYA snappers, if not Ms. Diesel). The press, of course, once again greeted the event with either horror or indifference. Last year, Pride perversely prompted overeager coverage of “bug-chasers”—the supposedly vast legion of guys who actually want facial wasting for Christmas. This year, there was an equally inspiring spate of talk about how things were better when everyone was deep in the closet and full of shame and signifiers! But I’m sticking to the out-and-proud shit, only because I’ve been doing it so long I just know it’ll come back again soon. (The same reasoning has led to my closet full of ’80s appliquéd blouses.)

Highlights from the foofy festivities included a procession of “flaggots” (gay men twirling flags to BRITNEY SPEARS‘s “Toxic”), a studly queen wearing a “Queer Pole for the Straight Hole” T-shirt, and another sophisticate hawking a memoir and screaming, “I used to be a homo basher, but I went to prison and now I’m a homo lover!” For most people, it’s the opposite trajectory.

The bars that weekend brought homo lovers to all the homo bashes, and I turned into a giant flaggot at each entrance. The Pyramid’s mixed Friday-night 1984 event had a Madonnathon, which got us plastered on cone bras and kabbalah water (though, as Esther danced on the video screens, TONI BASIL intriguingly blared out of the sound system). The amazing Area 10009 party at Opaline starred three wonderfully disaffected go-go boys wiggling their exposed heinies while looking like they were thinking about the next day’s vacuum-cleaner-bag shopping. And over at the Park’s Rambles party, one of the place’s former dancers, Avenue Q writer JEFF WHITTY, came back as a patron (and a Tony winner) on Gay Pride night. Was that old man they showed on the Tonys telecast as Whitty gushed about his boyfriend really his special one? “No, that was my dad!” Whitty told me, clarifying—not his sugar dad.

At the Maritime, the Cabanas party was unspeakably festive, and a level below at La Bottega, NICOLE KIDMAN looked ultra-glam and animated dining with two female friends. Happy Pride!

Panic in the Year Queero

In the movies, especially dimwit comedies, straight male characters have been overengaging in lesbian fantasies (i.e., watching the sapphics exchange tongue and then miraculously getting to nail one of them) and gay panic (you know, having paroxysms of terror that every queer pole out there desires their straight hole—which generally happens to be grotesque and misshapen, by the way). Another backlash against gay visibility? You got it, sister. (At least cool-hetero Vin seems above all that. Blecccccch.)

As for the straightest story ever told, is The Notebook still running? Yeah—and so is my nose, but not from the anticipated empathy sob. They gave out Kleenex at the screening, but I cried mainly because, after an intriguing beginning, the flick falls into such shameless pulp-novel plotting, it makes a Diesel drama look like Beckett. (Uptight rich girl meets guy from wrong side of the tracks and Mom disapproves, ugh.) This flick is so low it even uses Alzheimer’s as a plot device! Let’s just forget it!

But back, as all things must go, to the queers and the fourth annual Miss L.E.S. pageant at Fez, which I helped judge in order to give the dykey delight some femininity. (There were diesels here, but no Vin; he must have been elsewhere, singing show tunes.) Last year, as host MURRAY HILL mistily remembers, one runner-up was so tanked she ripped the curtain on her way to the floor. This year, Murray had the crowd on the floor with suave singing, foot-synched soft-shoe routines, and remarks like “Feel free to heckle and objectify the guests. We’re in a safe place tonight!”

Or were we? The Lower East Side contestants ranged from a sex-toy addict to a Marxist theory deconstructionist, but the winner was Miss Allen Street, who dressed like a crazy old Hispanic woman and threatened to start a sex dungeon for the ancient. She won in the voting, but fellow judges the WAU-WAU SISTERS and Le Tigre’s JD SAMSON wanted to rethink that, and another judge, MARGA GOMEZ, was also freaking because she’s been accused of having slept with the winners before, and Miss Allen had announced her love for Marga onstage. Still, we stuck with it since tampering, after all, led to our lovely president’s reign.

By the way, another judge, LINDA SIMPSON, is restarting My Comrade, her East Village gay political mag, with a testy test issue. If that publication doesn’t get some appetizing dirt on Diesel, I’m gonna hurl again, folks.


The King and Oy

Fire, ice, and horses are the stars of King Arthur—along with the large appendage of a character who describes it as “too much to handle. It’s like a baby’s arm holding an apple.” I used it to vault to the after-party at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Renaissance Faire types served glogg (and apples) as I asked spunky co-star KEIRA KNIGHTLEY if she feels the movie is basically Camelot without songs. “It is not like Camelot at all,” balked Knightley, “but you can have a Camelot legend and you can have this movie. Variety is what we live for!” No, I prefer the Hollywood Reporter. “I hate watching myself,” she went on, “but the movie is magically done, so it must be good.” OK—poof!

I vaulted back into the present by wandering into SCOTT NEVINS‘s Broadway night at Therapy, where Taboo‘s EUAN MORTON was spewing fire and ice, telling the crowd, “I pay taxes so Bush can kill innocent people. I should be a citizen!” I don’t know if Morton’s hung like a baby’s arm, but he definitely has wonderful balls.

And so do the fun patrons at Marie’s Crisis, where you drunkenly belt out Vin Diesel-ish show tunes while praying no one catches you there. Alas for him, I instantly spotted the aforementioned Jeff Whitty, who gamely squealed, “It’s my first time!” Yeah, and I’m straight!