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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The Winner Takes It All: Thoughts on Mamma Mia! – September 12, 2015

While the trend to create a musical based around the song catalog of a singer or band is not a new one, there have been a lot of such musicals in recent years – some have had short runs (Good Vibrations) while others continue to thrill audiences (Jersey Boys). Among the first of the long runners was Mamma Mia!, which ended its Broadway run last night after almost 14 years and 5,773 performances, making it the 8th longest running Broadway show. The show weaves its tale of a young girl’s yearning to find her father and the drama (and hilarity) that ensues when the three possible candidates arrive on her wedding day around the songs of ABBA, with great success. While there have been critics (professional and otherwise) who have bemoaned the saccharine aspects of the show and that it’s not a “real” musical, the fact that it’s a happy, poppy show is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s room for purely entertaining musicals and the more serious “real” musicals, and Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway at a time when New Yorkers needed something uplifting and purely entertaining to help them though those dark days.

Mamma Mia winter garden

While I’ve never really been much of an ABBA fan, I knew most of the songs, and first encountered the show (I think) via the performances the show gave at the Broadway on Broadway concert and the Broadway in Bryant Park concert series. I’ve seen the show several times before the final matinee performance and have always enjoyed it, especially the “Megamix” encore at the end (after the curtain call) where the leads appear in colorful ‘70s outfits singing “Mamma Mia”, “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” – there’s always a party atmosphere, with the audience singing, clapping and dancing along with the cast. I always leave the theatre (whether it was at the Winter Garden, where the production began its run, or at the Broadhurst where the production ended its run) with a smile, and the ABBA score playing in my head. I obtained my ticket the day before more as a precaution as I wanted to be guaranteed a seat for that performance, as I tend to not buy tickets in advance in case I can obtain a ticket at the TKTS booth, which sells same day tickets at a discounted price. I got to the theatre well before the 1PM curtain (the final performance was at 6:30PM) and hung around the stage door area, taking photos and chatting with fellow theatergoers (also helped convince a father, with his two daughters, decide whether or not to get standing room seats – they ended up getting them).

Mamma Mia Broadhurst

Mamma Mia final cast list

As it was the final matinee, it was a full house and a lively audience, cheering throughout, sometimes clapping along with the songs. The cast was outstanding, singing and dancing with great enthusiasm, with brief moments of wistfulness. I will admit I started to tear up a bit during the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” and I noticed other audience members wiping their eyes as well. The stage door experience was fantastic as always, crowded as expected for the final matinee – the principal cast came out to sign playbills, to chat with fans and take photos with those at the stage door, though the surge of fans at the stage door prevented me from getting photos with the cast, as the metal barricades were situated a bit too close to the stage door, creating a bit of a bottleneck, coupled with fans further back from the front of the metal barricades pushing forward with their playbills. Nevertheless, the cast signed all the playbills presented to them, chatting with those at the stage door before returning inside the theatre (after all, they had their final show to prepare for). Kudos to Judy McLane, who ended her tenure at Mamma Mia! as Donna (she started with the show playing Tanya), who remained outside the stage door signing playbills, souvenir  programs and posing for photos for those lingering outside.

Top row: Allison Ewing, Judy McLane & Mary Callanan Middle row: Jon Jorgenson, Elena Ricardo & Neil Starkenberg Bottom row: Paul DeBoy, Victor Wallace & John Hemphill

Top row: Allison Ewing, Judy McLane & Mary Callanan
Middle row: Jon Jorgenson, Elena Ricardo & Neil Starkenberg
Bottom row: Paul DeBoy, Victor Wallace & John Hemphill

Needless to say, I’ve always had a great time at Mamma Mia! and wish I went to see the show more times before it closed (I only saw the show 6 times during its almost 14 year run). I will miss the exuberance and the positive vibes the show exuded, but at least I have the original London cast recording (I wish they had recorded one with the Broadway cast). And then there’s the movie adaptation, which captured most of the energy the stage production had. I’m sure it’s evident through these blog posts that I’m quasi-critical about Hollywood adaptations of stage musicals, especially with regards to how they’re cast, though whatever reservations I have about the movie adaptation, the end credits, which included the Megamix encore makes up for its shortcomings.

So, to the entire cast, crew and creative team of Mamma Mia! throughout its run, I say, “Thank You For the Music, for giving it to me” (and countless theatergoers).

Mamma Mia signed playbill