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Head Over Heels, Straight White Men

Posted 8/5/18

Head Over Heels  reviewed  by Fern Siegel for travelersusanotebook.com

Head Over Heels, a snarky Broadway jukebox musical about gender-bending, star-crossed lovers and the purity of the musical beat hits the right note.

Now at the Hudson Theater, Head Over Heels is a colorful show based on Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia, an idealized 16th-century pastoral romance. Updated with a book by Jeff Whitty and an adaption by James Magruder, the show delivers a sassy 21st-century twist.

The music comes courtesy of The Go-Gos, 1980s female rock stars, and the playlist includes hits like “We Got the Beat,” “Mad About You” and the title-inspiration “Head Over Heels.”

All is not well in the kingdom of Arcadia. When Pythio, The Oracle of Delphi (Peppermint), foretells four alarming prophecies, Arcadia’s controlling king (Jeremy Kushnier) grabs his family and courtiers (Taylor Inman Jones and Tom Alan Robbins) and heads to Bohemia, hoping to avoid his fate. 

Of course, the show’s point is that an open mind and heart trumps a closed one. Holding onto conventional beliefs often sacrifices a more enlightened future. But getting there requires a journey ripe with sexual awakening, mistaken identities (a trick Shakespeare used to great effect) and secret rendezvous, aided by Spencer Liff’s zippy choreography.

The humor is sometimes broad, but what drives the musical is the fun of self-discovery, aided by a lively cast. Be it the over-the-top ego of Pamela (a wonderful Bonnie Milligan), the king’s eldest daughter, her eager-to-please sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), their faithful, but bored mother Gynecia (pitch-perfect Rachel York) or eager lover Musidorus (Andrew Durand), a shepherd pining for Philoclea, the ensemble relishes their roles.

All three women wrestle with expectation vs. desire. Pamela rejects all suitors, giving her father grief. Philoclea embraces duty over desire. Both discover their true selves in ways comedic and pointed.

Sir Sidney may not have conceived of a non-binary plural as an oracle, but Peppermint, debuting as the first transgender woman to create a principal role on Broadway, ups the prophecy game. So does the understanding that remaining rigid in a changing world doesn’t halt progress, it just makes everyone unhappy.

The parody-like plot enjoys fast-paced direction by Michael Mayer, who utilizes his talented cast to great effect. Head Over Heels is a modern fairy tale — be your authentic self — in classical guise, which has audiences cheering for a happy ending.

Straight White Men,  reviewed by Fern Siegel for travelersusanotebook.com

Happy endings, however, often elude real families — such is the case in Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, now at the Helen Hayes. Lee has the distinction of being the first Asian-American woman to write a Broadway play. And her commentary on white male privilege is timely.

A Midwest father and his three sons are celebrating Christmas. Widower Ed (Stephen Payne) is delighted by his boys’ closeness and horseplay; 40something guys who act like they’re 12 again. And it all seems harmless, even touching, especially when they break into dance.

Gradually, cracks in the brothers’ camaraderie emerge. As each man confronts the truth of his life, the fault lines widen.

A picture frame, aptly titled “Straight White Men,” outlines the stage, so the audience is primed to see a living diorama. On display: a family of well-educated white men grappling with societal and personal expectation.

All of which is kicked off by one moment — when eldest brother Matt (Paul Schneider) inexplicably cries during dinner. His emotional vulnerability unnerves his brethren. Jake (Josh Charles) is a divorced, wealthy banker with two kids. Drew (Armie Hammer) is a tenured academic and novelist, while Matt (Paul Schneider) is a Harvard grad with a temp job — a standing his brothers cannot abide.

In short, how can a privileged white man be successful if he doesn’t ascend to a privileged status? Anathema to his family, Matt doesn’t pursue a career. (That he’s content to rely on the generosity of his aging parent is a play all its own.)

Moreover, they can’t understand why Matt is content to stay home and care for their elderly father. A question rarely asked of caretaking women.

Jake’s justification sounds ludicrous to Drew. He posited the dubious theory that Matt has sacrificed himself to give the marginalized a chance. Drew doesn’t want a martyred brother; he wants a happy, productive one. Drew suggests therapy, while Dad denies anything is amiss.

Lee gently raises important questions, social and economic, though her dialogue seems strained at junctures. Still, the four actors are solid — and their pain is heartfelt. Energetically directed by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro, Straight White Men is thoughtful and disquieting — as is its provocative pre-show opening.  —Fern Siegel