Reporting From Broadway

Head Over Heels

Broadway’s take on The Go-Gos story has nod to Elizabethan times.

It’s pretty funny that Head Over Heels, the latest jukebox musical on Broadway looks like an Elizabethan take off, as in the style of Spamalot and Something Rotten. It’s not Jersey Boys. But then The Go-Gos, the girl rock band whose music is celebrated here, were punk rockers, whose style rejected the sentimental balladeering that made The Four Seasons so popular.

Punk, to the contrary, was aggressively modern, spawning a fashion craze, and creating the music of rebellion, of anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian ideology. On stage, punk musicians were known to perform strange antics, famously staging explosions, and chain sawing guitars.

To that end, the Elizabethan dialogue in Head Over Heels is integral to the comic, cacophonous style of the stage story. Based on Sir Philip Sidney’s late 16th Century prose work, The Arcadia, the musical book was conceived by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), and adapted by James Magruder (Triumph of Love). True to the idealized story of a shepherd’s life, with multiple intertwining plot lines, and set against pastoral scenery, the action is brash, broadly comic, and highly anachronistic. The genre is camp outré, and rife with gender bending.

Scenic designer Julian Crouch creates a bucolic background in the style of Renaissance pastoral paintings. But the action mostly takes place among trees that look like they’re made of cardboard, and a smattering of columns that appear to be relics from the Oracle of Delphi. Arianne Phillips’ costumes, Elizabethan garb mixed with body suits, equipped with cads for the male chorus, are eye-popping.

But the most dynamic element in this production, and which drives it, is Spencer Liff’s choreography (Hedwig), featuring highly charged moves and uniformity of gesture that looks almost militaristic.

When it comes to “keeping the beat,” Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) keeps the action moving at a pace becoming of farce. And his cast is fast on his heels.

In the role of The Shepherd, Andrew Durand is a heartthrob. He’s completely adorable and fetching, both as the character of the Shepherd, and the Amazon woman he poses as, in Act II. He sings and acts the role beautifully.

As his love interest, Philoclea, Alexandra Socha is a vulnerable flower child. Wearing bright red slippers, Bonnie Milligan plays her love-starved sister with panache, and Taylor Iman Jones, the lost daughter of royal descent, has the spunkiest vocal style.

As the evil king, Jeremy Kushnier projects both the banality of his daring and his bluster. And Rachel York as the queen is easily commanding. Together they have a walloping sex scene behind a hanging sheet, making this the sexiest shadow puppet show of all time. That gets a 10.

Peppermint, of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame, portrays Pythio, the Sphinx, with a sense of shapeshifting that transcends the human form, suggesting a third gender. With her large womanly figure and baritone voice, she fulfills the message about unbounded sexuality and self-expression.

While the Go-Gos may not be well remembered today, several songs here are worthy of attention, especially, “We Got The Beat,” “Head Over Heels,” and Belinda Carlisle’s anthemic, “Heaven Is A Place on Earth.”

As is his wont, Tom Kitt’s musical arrangements and orchestration are cause for craziness on stage. All in all, it’s a fun ride.

Mary Page Marlowe

Tracy Letts’ new play, Mary Page Marlowe, currently at Second Stage, is an emotional drama. Letts loves to pack a punch, giving voice to characters in varying states of despair, many of whom are unpredictably alarming. Indeed, he’s a masterful engineer of psychological horror stories that include his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, August: Osage County.

In a way, Mary’s three marriages are evocative of the horrible relationship at the heart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in so far as both plays depict marriage as a kind of hell. Letts, an actor as well as a playwright, garnered the Tony Award for his portrayal of George in the play’s 2013 revival.

While Edward Albee’s play is set amidst the ivory towers of a New England college, Mary Page takes place in the simpler, and seemingly more banal terrain of Ohio. The bickering and abuse that Mary discovers in marriage are the everyman, everyday version of George and Martha’s games. The dialogue, and the ongoing life of this play, are far more quotidian as well. But that doesn’t seem to be making things any better for our titular heroine, Mary, who yearns for adventure, in a bigger world.

As the play opens, she’s telling her two teenage children that they’re moving from Ohio to Kentucky because she and their father are divorcing. That the kids are upset over the move to another state just a couple hundred miles away tells us something about the provincial nature of their Midwestern lives. Not that that makes the trauma of moving, and dealing with divorce any less, but it does alter our perspective on what qualifies as significant.

Still, the focus of this drama is our titular heroine, Mary, an accountant who we meet at various times of her life, from infancy to old age. And she is portrayed by six consummate actors. Among them, the chameleon Susan Pourfar portrays the wan accountant in her midlife crisis; Emma Geer the college student who dreams big; and Blair Brown the older, more accepting, and wryly humorous Mary.

Structured around 11 distinct scenes, the story line emerges through Mary’s eyes and shifting perspectives. In a scene with 12-year-old Mary, played delicately by Mia Sinclair Jenness, we meet her mother, portrayed by Grace Gummer as a nasty alcoholic. Be it nature or nurture, that is the rut Mary falls into, and which drags her life downward. As in August: Osage County, addiction as a family trait is central to the action.

As for the men in her life, they are mostly syphons. Mary’s father, played by Nick Dillenberg, is a study in self-involvement, and her second husband, portrayed here by David Aaron Baker, is similarly wed to self-interest.

Her corpulent boss, played by Richard Thieriot, standing in for Gary Wilmes the night I saw the play, is mercilessly after sex with the 27-year-old Mary, played by Emmy Award-winning Tatiana Maslany, who makes an impressive Off-Broadway debut. Maslany also plays a 30-something Mary in a scene with her moralizing therapist (Marcia DeBonis).

Fortunately, Mary marries well in the end. And Brian Kerwin brings out the gentleness in the man who respects her need for self-fulfillment.

As directed by Lila Neugebauer, (The Wolves), this woman’s story is fascinating, complex, and probing. In Neugebauer’s hands, the nonchronological, nonlinear structure of the play creates an intriguing puzzle for the audience. In the hands of a lesser director, the story line might be difficult to follow. But here, Mary’s need for self-actualization, in a world where abuse is the thread that threatens the fiber of existence, is truthful without being overstated.

The production feels intimate, in spite of the mostly white tile set by designer Laura Jellinek, who creates a two-platform playing area connected by a wall that flows from top to bottom, like a wave. It’s an interesting metaphor for the drama of Mary’s life, which washes over us so transfixingly.