Love Comes First: Musings on Head Over Heels – October 16, 2018

Love stories are an integral part of any Broadway musical – some are comic, some are tragic, and they always invoke strong emotions and (sometimes) life lessons. Head Over Heels, currently playing at the Hudson Theater, has an abundance of heart at its core, with love of all kinds on display without judgement. While the show is a loose adaptation of The Arcadia, an Elizabethan prose poem by Sir Philip Sidney, with its score comprised of songs of the 1980’s pop band The Go-Go’s, its message is timely and relevant for 2018. I obtained tickets the usual way I obtain tickets in the autumn (via the TDF table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction). I will admit I have some preconceptions about the show (as it’s yet another “jukebox” musical), so my expectations were not that high. Nevertheless, I went into the show with an open mind, as there were a number of Broadway actors I liked in the show, I liked many of the Go-Go’s songs and I was intrigued by the Elizabethan tone (though I was not familiar with its source material).

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The story is set in the land of Arcadia, ruled by a mythical “Beat” that falls under threat proclaimed by a new oracle Pythio, who deems the kingdom too traditional. The King of Arcadia takes the royal family on a journey to prevent the prophesies (involving his wife’s fidelity and his daughters becoming entangled with questionable suitors) from being fulfilled. Mistaken identities, miscommunication and misconceptions lead to self-discovery, acceptance and a new “Beat” for Arcadia to follow.

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The overall design (set, costumes and lighting) was amazing – bright, colorful and fun, befitting the energy of its score. The cast was astounding, exuding joy while blurring the gender lines – Peppermint, (a runner-up on the reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race), is the first transgender actor to originate a character that identified as non-binary, and played Pythio with equal parts sass and wisdom. Another standout was Bonnie Milligan, also making her Broadway debut, as Pamela, the eldest princess proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the land” whose body shape matches her big, brassy voice – her self-assurance of her beauty, and the fact that it is accepted as such (and not the butt of any jokes) is revolutionary. The overall tone is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as there are moments of poking (not necessarily breaking) the fourth wall, and its (somewhat) self-awareness of the dialogue spoken (mostly) in verse. Unbeknownst to me, the performance I attended was a benefit for the Actor’s Fund, and there was a brief speech after the curtain call.

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The stage door was surprisingly low-key, though I’m not sure if that was due to the fact that not many people know where the stage door was located. The Hudson is a relatively new theater, and one I had not yet visited, so I (naturally) asked where it was before the show – it’s on the W. 45th street, accessible by going through the Millennium Hotel next door. I managed to meet many of the cast (including getting photos with the entire principal cast – a first).

Head Over Heels stage door collage

Needless to say, my preconceptions about the show were shattered, and the show exceeded my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed Head Over Heels – it’s equally entertaining and enlightening, with a powerful message of inclusivity and acceptance of all gender identities. It’s almost as if the premise of Head Over Heels is a metaphor of sorts of the state of things in America in 2018.

Perhaps a new Beat is needed to create a better society.

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A Question of Identity: Thoughts on The 3rd Gender – August 18, 2013

Debate and discussions pertaining to gender identity and the perception thereof, along with its impact and influence on society is an enduring and omnipresent issue that has united and/or divided people throughout history. Civil rights, equality and the rights of the individual have also been a longstanding issue for society as a whole to address, which is more at the forefront now, with all the debates, discussions and protests occurring in the political, religious and social arenas on a global scale. In the midst of all of this comes The 3rd Gender, a new play written and directed by Peter Zachari currently playing at the Connelly Theater, part of the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival.

The 3rd Gender

[Brief Disclaimer: As always, for the sake of full disclosure, (and as previously mentioned in another blog post) Peter has become and is a good friend of mine; I’ve seen his other productions Parker and Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey to the End of the Rainbow and Fat Asses, The Musical and have been a minor investor for Parker and Dizzy and The 3rd Gender. The opinions and musings stated in this blog are my own, with no influence from the playwright. This is not a formal review or critique – I’m not a critic, I’m just an average theatergoer.]

The play is set far into the future in the year 2397, where humanity has evolved into and is ruled by the third gender, beings with  opposing genders residing in one body – those with the physical appearance of one gender coupled with the spiritual essence of the opposite gender. Those that are identified with the same gender within and without are deemed “heteronormative”, and are considered undesirable within the framework of this enlightened utopia. The play focuses on Manten, a young man identified as a heteronormative who has spent his entire life at Optima Somea, a facility that  exists to correct the abnormality he represents. Disoriented after enduring another operation to “correct” his condition, he awakens with memory loss and strives to learn more about himself and his past; through a series of chance meetings and startling revelations, he discovers more than he ever wanted to know about the Brave New World into which he was born.

This play is quite a departure from Parker and Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey to the End of the Rainbow and Fat Asses, The Musical, which were both lighthearted musicals infused with pop culture references, yet all three share a common theme in the question of identity and society’s unfavorable perspective on individuals who are considered to be “different” from the majority. The 3rd Gender is a powerful allegory that is quite timely at this moment in history, with the political and social discussion and debate about, and protests for and against gay rights around the world, and the standpoint some government leaders take with the issue (or at least the attempts to so). The alleged brave new world depicted in this future is a twist (or mirror universe, for those of the sci-fi inclination) of society (generally speaking) today – where heterosexuals (heteronormatives in the play) are the undesirable minority and the powers-that-be strive to correct this, by meditative conditioning to force them to be like “everyone else” or be eliminated. In many ways, the issues dealt with in this play are akin to the Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World, with its illusions of achieving perfection and purging out all that deviates from the (new) norm.

The staging was sparse yet effective, with added sound effects and voiceovers to provide exposition and insight for the audience to understand the world in which the play is set; the concept of a OCR (Optimal Character Recognizer), a handheld device that stores all data about a person and determines that person’s status is a brilliant one (and an invention I suspect will cross over into the real world some day). The cast was astounding, displaying a range of emotion into presenting a (quite possible) future and the dangers that manifest when an individual begins to question and challenge the status quo. The most notable performance came from JP Serret as Manten, the heteronormative at the center of the play – the confusion, the frustration and eventual anger that manifests and ultimately (and literally) explodes within and without him  as the play unfolds is akin to a ticking time bomb or an erupting volcano. The tension slowly builds and festers until Serret reaches a breaking point and pours out all of the frustration and anger in his penultimate soliloquy – to the point where I could see his face turn a vivid shade of red as he rages at the heavens and with himself (I’ve only seen one other actor achieve this level of anger displayed on stage, and it’s quite a sight to behold).

3rd Gender Cast

The only real critique I have is that the play doesn’t really have a proper ending – the narrative just stops rather than concludes, ending with a dramatic high point after a startling revelation then fades to black. I feel that there should be a proper resolution, but then again, this is a 90 minute show, and I’m not quite sure if there’s a specific time limit on Fringe productions so perhaps there will be a prequel, sequel or expansion to the play if an opportunity arises to transfer this production to a off-off or even off-Broadway venue. There is much left to explore and discover in this future universe (as an aspiring author, I’ve thought up some plausible exposition,  introspective character studies, and alternate ending stories based on this play and its complex characters).

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this play – there are only two performances left at the Fringe (though I do hope it has a life afterwards). To learn more about the play and remaining performances, please visit the show’s website: http://www.the-third-gender.com/