Spencer Liff doesn’t update Bob Fosse’s choreography for the new Go-Go’s jukebox musical Head Over Heels so much as simply recapitulate it on stage.
Liff has seen Hamilton, and he borrows that musical’s mic-drop attitude by having the dancers indicate “I’m Over It!” with facial shrugs and curling, extended wrists that hang over their heads as they exclaim their exits.
Liff’s major through lines from Fosse to now are, of course, Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” video from 1988 and the equally derivative 2008 “Poker Face” video from the 2008 incarnation of Lady Gaga. In each, we watch the ensembles form their dance orgy of groping hands and thrusting hips until reaching a frenzied climax so that the pop starlet can, along with the dancers, cum and collapse on the floor.
After watching dancers perform the same froth-inducing routines, you walk out of the theater with a profound feeling of déjà vu. (If you’ve seen one simulated orgy, you’ve seen them all.) The male dancers in Head Over Heels promote their goods with codpieces, frequently appearing bare-chested and tarted up with makeup to rival Tammy Faye Bakker in her heyday. (The women fare better in the costume and maquillage departments.) This is meant to be the 16th-century after all. But Jeff Whitty’s original book and James Magruder’s adaptation of Sir Philip Sidney’s play The Arcadia is interpreted so archly that the storyline almost doesn’t matter.
Nor does Head Over Heels cohere enough to make an emotional impression, peppered as it is with random songs from the Go-Go’s and Belinda Carlisle’s back catalogs. When Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins) sings “Lust to Love” in a duet with his daughter Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones, whose vocal work is stellar), it’s not only icky but it makes no sense, narratively speaking. Try singing these lines to your father: “Love me and I’ll leave you / I told you at the start. / I had no idea that you / Would tear my world apart.” Um, no thanks. What has been adapted for the stage is an updated version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a contemporary take on gender fluidity. Viola from Twelfth Night might argue that Shakespeare started queering identities with greater inventiveness long ago.
If I were still a sexually confused teenager, it would be empowering to see the lesbian love story that develops between Mopsa and Pamela (Bonnie Milligan, who threads the needle in a tricky comedic role). The audience also received Peppermint (as the oracle Pythio), a runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race, with palpable affection and excitement. And she, too, gets a love interest eventually. But these plot points feel like check marks on a list of political correctness. Lesbian love: check. Snarky and fierce trans character: check. A cross-dressing hero (Andrew Durand as Musidorus) who embraces his feminine side: check. But the psychology behind all the bawdy romping on display feels as dated as The Benny Hill Show. Queer love and sexuality are alive and well — but only in this Disneyfied, make-believe world.
Head Over Heels’ greatest achievement is one particularly inventive set design. At the midway point, Mopsa retreats to the desert island of Lesbos. Her island is set off-center and well back from the edge of the proscenium. Blue waves shaped like Hokusai woodblocks ripple and undulate as mermaids in sunglasses pop up from the sea, Mopsa’s backup singers on a slow-tempo version of “Vacation.” It’s a singular moment in the production when the song, the singer, the set, and the lyrics all come together and make sense in the context of the storyline.
It opens with a group grope that’s set to the still-electric and energizing “We Got the Beat.” Hidden backstage for the entirety, the all-female band nails every nuanced lick from Beauty and the Beat, The Go-Go’s first album. And that’s the problem. The production relentlessly mines our nostalgia for the record, and for the early 1980s, only to curdle those good feelings by softening them into kitsch. We want to see the real band in a reunion tour with each passing, misplaced song.
Instead, we suffer through Kevin Adams’ primary-colored lighting design, which hurtles against the optic nerve like a nightmarish LSD flashback. A particularly egregious combination of coruscating pink and green lights managed to conjure up dozens of diseased police sirens. It’s evident why Michael Mayer won a Tony for directing the Broadway production of Spring Awakening. He doesn’t allow the cast a moment’s downtime. There wasn’t a misstep, a missed note, or a flubbed line. The producers — including Gwyneth Paltrow, who bopped along to the beat on opening night — want you to know that while they are opening the show here, they’ve already packed their bags for New York.
Going to see Head Over Heels isn’t exactly a night out at the theater. It’s an event you can curate on social media. Tourists everywhere will eat it up when it arrives on the Great White Way. The best thing that can be said for it is it didn’t ruin my teenage memories of listening to Beauty and the Beat ad infinitum. It was also pretty great to see three of the actual Go-Go’s — Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, and Kathy Valentine — dancing on stage at the curtain call. When they cut loose and started frugging, something on stage finally felt uncalculated. They were full of joy.
Head Over Heels, through May 6, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St. $29-$175; 415-358-1220 or sfcurran.com