By William Wolf

SEPARATE AND EQUAL  Send This Review to a Friend

You never see a real basketball in the fast-paced moving “Separate and Equal” that takes place on a mini basketball court set up in the intimate theater. The ball being flipped about is imaginary, except when we see the results of the shots into or missing the hoops projected on screens on each side of the court. We in the audience sit court-side practically touching the sweating competing players, black and white, all choreographed in dynamic motion with imaginary dribbling and hand-clap sound effects. One might say that stars of the production, in addition to the excellent actors, are choreographer Lawrence M. Jackson and writer-director Seth Panitch.

Set in segregated Alabama in the 1950s, “Separate and Equal” is a blast reminding us of what life was like there and then for African-Americans facing persistent discrimination, as well as for whites doing the discriminating. The play also zeroes in on the possibilities for black-white interaction if only mutual understanding could break through the ugliness. But don’t expect this play to end happily.

The play was produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with th Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and Birmingham Metro NAACP. The searing drama is built around black youths using a basketball court that was forbidden to them at peril of their arrest and worse by the local police. When white youths encounter African-Americans on the court, there is rage, and the ensuing hubbub results in their playing each other amid racist slurs and tensions. At one ultimate sequence they temporarily mingle symbolically on opposing sides. Always there lurks the danger of black guys stepping out of their segregated perimeters.

The personal lives of the youths and related or close adults are intertwined with the action, which expands the drama and provides insight into backgrounds and crises. But the genius of the writing and direction is using the court symbolically as a civil rights battleground.

This is very much an ensemble effort, with a large cast that includes—all deserve recognition—Adrian Baidoo, James Holloway, Edwin Brown III, Will Badgett, Ted Barton, Jeremy Cox, Ross Birdsong, Steven Bond Jr, Dylan Guy Davis, Pamela Afesi and Barbara Wengero .

“Separate and Equal” reminds us of how far we have come and how far we haven’t, and certainly of the unscrupulous efforts to exploit racial bias by a certain U.S. president. But within and despite all that happens on this basketball court lurks a glimmer of hope. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 22-279-4200. Reviewed September 10, 2018.

MEANINGFUL CONVERSATION  Send This Review to a Friend

It takes quite a while before there are a few moments of rare meaningful conversation in this new play by Owen Panettieri, and it ultimately ends with gimmickry. But holding interest throughout are excellent cast members who provide a feeling of watching real people.

The play, realistically directed by Anaïs Koivisto, is a presentation of New Light Theater Project in association with Luis Miranda, Jr. It takes place in the apartment of David, played convincingly by Denver Milord, who feels that he has always screwed up in his life. There is a blackout underway and David is improvising with tiny battery-driven lights.

Enter Nat, portrayed by Bethany Geraghty as a motor-mouthed neighbor who comes in through David’s window via the fire escape, and conversation leads to her staying a while. She induces David into playing a childish game of building a tent—we see the process with the use of blankets--and there is soon the expected physical attraction.

The conversation is dopy and far from meaningful, until each begins to tell about past events, with Nat having an especially upsetting background involving the murder of her mother. These moments of revelation temporarily give substance to the play’s title.

The situation is interrupted periodically by sounds they hear through the wall—a couple fighting ferociously with the possibility that the woman could be physically harmed. As for Nat and David, they eventually part company in an argumentative atmosphere and Nat retreats through the window back to her own digs.

The second act begins with David in bed with Lydia, whom he has just met and who is portrayed by Bertha Leal. Lydia is cute and has a very feisty personality. There are more other apartment noises, and intrigued Lydia eagerly get into the listening spirit by putting her ear against the wall. The situation prompts David to finally take a firm action in his life and phone the police. The two cops whom we eventually meet are effectively played by SJ Hannah (Martinez) and John-Peter Cruz (Vardakas).

But the playwright builds David’s call into an unlikely situation involving Nat that makes David regret what he has done and he determinedly takes action to try to make amends. Our experience with the characters presented us, although they are well acted, and even engaging at times, ends in a play that is very much at sea and fails to pull everything together with some sort of depth or significance. At the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street. Reviewed September 13, 2018.

HEARTBREAK HOUSE (Gingold Theatrical Group)   Send This Review to a Friend

Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” loaded with the author’s views on social issues and set in 1914 Sussex, England, doesn’t need any gift-wrapping. Yet this production by the Gingold Theatrical Group, with direction by David Staller, has packaged it with a 1940 World War II setting in the basement of London’s Ambassadors Theatre, where actors and other theater folk have taken shelter during the blitz.

To make the point, the audience, which also is assumed to be seeking safety, is greeted by cast members who encourage a sing-along before deciding to put on a show to pass the time until all is clear. Guess what? The decision is made that the play to be done is “Heartbreak House,” whereupon the group launches into the work itself, with a midway break to emphasize the staging circumstance, and a similar final note ater the play’s explosive conclusion.

How well you take to the gimmickry may at least partly determine how well you relate to this mounting of the play. Shaw’s dramatic ruminations often have the wit to leap across years and make one think that nothing much has really changed. In addition, he creates colorful characters to reveal his thoughts, and in the present case, an entertaining cast delivers the main course tastily despite the unnecessary trimmings.

Karen Ziemba is a special standout as Hesione Hushabye, who is married to Tom Hewitt as Hector Hushabye, a dashing man about town not known for being a faithful husband. She has invited into their home a young friend, Ellie Dunn, colorfully and smartly played by Kimberly Immanuel, who is planning to marry a man believed to be wealthy even though she has been harboring a crush on Hector. The plot has its convolutions, which serve to set up Shaw’s disdain for profit motives and women being reduced to wifely status. It turns out that Ellie has some important views on the matter.

Hesione’s father in the family country home is elderly Captain Shotover, played with bluster by the excellent Raphael Nash Thompson. His other daughter, Lady Ariadne Utterword, portrayed by scene-stealer Alison Fsazer, arrives, and Fraser has perfected a tight-voiced, haughtiness that often is hilarious and fits Shaw’s mocking at efforts to appear so upper-class.

Lenny Wolpe as Ellie’s businessman father is naïve in his financial dealings and is cynically manipulated by his employer, Derek Smith as Boss Mangan, representing Shaw’s portrait of greed. Mangan is the obnoxious man whom Ellie is slated to marry.

Jeff Hiller does duty in multiple roles, often amusing, including one as a burglar. While the play is certainly not Shaw’s best and it gets excessively talky at points, it does flash wit and has the ability to be entertaining when properly acted, as is mostly the case here. It certainly doesn’t need the awkward wrap-around it gets in this effort to be different. At the Lion Theater, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed September 10, 2018.


After a while one can really get to believe Hershey Felder is the real Irving Berlin in his extraordinary performance that is among the best of one-person shows I have seen over the years. He manages to look enough like Berlin to make the leap, and he magnetically draws an audience into the autobiographical story, illustrated by playing Berlin songs at the piano as well as singing. In the narrative, written by Felder, the songs are matched to aspects of Berlin’s life and insight is provided into how they were created. Felder casts a spell as he becomes the great, prolific composer who came here as a poor Jewish immigrant and became an American icon in the music world.

The production is beautifully directed by Trevor Hay, with the scenic design for Berlin’s apartment by Felder, including a large picture frame on the wall into which various images are projected to illustrate moments of Berlin’s life and the use of his music. There are scenes of Fred Astaire dancing to Berlin’s hit movie numbers. Everything combines into a dramatic unity that highlights Felder’s compelling acting.

The composer’s life is covered from the family escape from a pogrom in Russia and immigration to the United States to the composer’s death at 101 in 1989. The life of the composer unfolds in the context of what was happening in America and the world, including World Wars I and II, and how Berlin contributed his music and show biz know-how, as with his musical “This is the Army.”

Throughout Felder gives us a barrage of songs, often tied to significant parts of Berlin's life journey, and he makes it all sparkle, whether with intimate numbers like “Always” and “Count Your Blessings” or the lively “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

Of course there is “White Christmas,” one of the most popular songs of all time, and “God Bless America,” another huge contribution. When he sings “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Felder does an amusing on-target impression of what he calls the “foghorn” voice of Ethel Merman. Berlin wrote so many hits that Felder has to use a medley at one point in order to pack more into the performance.

The recounting of Berlin’s life contains the ups and downs. An early marriage in 1912 to Dorothy Goetz ended tragically with the death of his wife from typhoid fever. When he falls in love with heiress Ellen Mackay, daughter of ultra-rich Clarence Mackay, who lives in an upscale society environment, her father is furious that his Catholic daughter would stoop to falling for a Jewish Immigrant dismissively known as a singing waiter from his early job days, and the press was having a field day over the romance. But love conquers all. They married in a private ceremony even in the face of her father cutting all ties with his daughter until later when the couple was in what would prove to be a 63-year marriage, with Ellen living until 1988.

Berlin and his wife lost a son in infancy but they also had three daughters. Berlin lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. But he had the foresight to buy back the rights to his songs. Felder takes us through Berlin’s experiences in Hollywood and on Broadway, always with generous humor and sometimes with touches of irony. He also gets the audience to sing along at times, with a strong response resulting from succumbing to Felder’s charm.

And what songs we get along with the anecdotes, such as “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “What’ll I Do?” and “Blue Skies.” Felder is a whiz at the piano, and also keeps proving to be a fine actor as he builds a character and connects with his audience.

How much of the linking of anecdotes to particular songs may be biographically accurate is beside the point. The weaving of the material works so well dramatically that the result is consistently enchanting through 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission. Felder has been known for re-recreating the lives of other important artists. His Irving Berlin is certainly a high point. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed September 6, 2018.

DAYS TO COME  Send This Review to a Friend

The Mint Theater’s revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1936 play “Days to Come” is to be appreciated more as a curiosity in view of Hellman’s fame and accomplishments than a successful work. She was grappling seriously with labor and societal issues of her time but the result was rather diffuse, and the flaws as well as the strengths show in the faithful, generally well-acted Mint production directed by J. R. Sullivan.

It is easy to see why Hellman’s play flopped at the time. Her emphasis, while pointing up a labor struggle at a brush factory in a fictional Ohio town near Cleveland, dwells more on action and conflict within the home and family of the factory owner, with the drama set mainly in the owner’s house, fleshed out by Harry Feiner’s realistic period design. Good points are made, but this was a period when the left was aflame in the Great Depression and unions were on the rise as a counter reaction to unemployment. Thus the left would not find the play militant enough, and the right would be hostile to the labor aspect.

But to her credit Hellman apparently did not want to provide only agitprop. She was attempting to be a dramatist who looked penetratingly into individual lives as well as issues. Andrew Rodman (Larry Bull) has inherited the factory from his father, and as it has run into hard times, he reluctantly cut wages of the needy workers. Their union called a strike, and under pressure from his attorney and arrogant friend, Henry Ellicott (Ted Deasy), he agrees to allow hired, thuggish operator Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) to call in strike-breaking scabs at the peril of violence. That arrangement also includes having two of Wilkie’s goons, Mossie (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe (Evan Zes) into the house for protection.

Meanwhile, we meet Andrew’s lethargic wife Julie (Janie Brookshire), who not only is floundering around with the frustrations of not emerging as her own person, but is having a secret affair with Ellicott. It is not so secret with Andrew’s bitching, jealous and observant sister Cora (Mary Bacon), a persistent pain in the household.

Enter into the mess a charismatic, principled labor organizer, Leo Whelen (Roderick Hill), who comes to town in support of the strike. When Julie meets him, she becomes intrigued by his ideals, as well as feeling a romantic flare-up for him, and dares to visit him secretly one night at his office, a visit that turns out to have importance, even though he rejects her advances.

Hellman sets up all sorts of complications, including an unexpected killing and anti-labor violence that ends accidentally in the death of the young daughter of a leading employee, Thomas Firth (Chris Henry Coffey), who has long regarded himself as friendly with the Rodmans. There is also manipulative anti-union intrigue via an attempted frame-up, and, as if that were not enough to be resolved, Julie’s unfaithfulness is exposed.

One of those worth feeling sorry for is the Andrew Rodman, who has tried to maintain his illusion of fairness and decency, and needs to face what has been done in his name and also the infidelity of his wife and the shattering of a friendship. Bull does a superb acting job and his climactic outburst is a high point of the drama.

The character of Julie needs more development and emphasis, as in this interpretation—maybe it is in the direction-- she seems so at sea as to be barely existent, even allowing that she is searching for something new in life. In fact, the production itself rarely seems to ignite sufficiently.

There are too many dramatic contrivances for this to be a play anywhere nearly as good as top-level Hellman. Still, her effort to shine a spotlight on problems of her era and people caught in the conflicts was worthy, and the Mint Theater has provided a service in allowing us to see and evaluate this neglected work that was a part of the creative history of one of the last century’s important playwrights. At the Beckett, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed August 27, 2018.

GETTIN' THE BAND BACK TOGETHER  Send This Review to a Friend

This garish, ultra-loud rock musical is infused with hard-working, colorful cast members who have the power with their overwhelming energy and hi-jinks to turn on an audience receptive to the show’s wave-length. The plot is a huge cliché, but an audience can take to the talented individuals who don’t exhibit a smidgen of self-consciousness toward the material and let it all pour out in the in-your-face numbers and situations.

Scott Richard Foster as the Host comes forth to set the tone by questioning the audience if it is ready to have a good time and persists until there is a roaring collective affirmative. Then it’s off to the races with Mitchell Jarvis as the star Mitch Papadopoulos leading the overture and the first number “Jersey.” The action is mainly set in belittled Sayreville, N.J. As I grew up near there, far be it for me to denigrate the area, even though I quickly escaped to more sophisticated Manhattan.

The book is by Ken Davenport and a collective called The Grundelshotz, with music and lyrics by Mark Allen and additional material by Sarah Saltzberg. The frenetic choreography is by Chris Bailey, and director John Rando, much experienced with superior stuff, injects a high level of spirit into the singing and band playing. Emily Rebholz’s costumes are mostly gaudy.

To set the story for you, Mitch is a 40-year-old stockbroker who has just been fired and now lives with Sharon, his still attractive and sexy mother, played winsomely by attractive and sexy Marilu Henner. Their home is in danger of foreclosure for lack of mortgage payments.

Mitch’s pal is Bart (Jay Klaitz), a sloppy looking high school teacher who prods Mitch into wanting to reorganize their band called Juggernaut from more youthful days. The incentive, apart from filling dreams they one had, is a band competition in which they could face-off against their old nemesis band, Mouthfeel, led by the nasty Tygen (Brandon Williams), whose entourage is about as ugly as one can get. Tygen also is in a position to foreclose on the home of Mitch and Sharon. Mitch’s band does get together, of course. Other members include drummer Sully, a cop who really wants to be an actor (Paul Whitty) and Rummesh Patel (Manu Narayan), a dermatologist whose father wants to push him into an arranged marriage.

What gives the show some oomph despite the inherent flaws are some dynamic numbers. In the second act a teenage guitarist, Ricky Bling, played by Sawyer Nunes joins as a replacement for a former band member who had the poor judgment to die. In the band’s booking at an orthodox Jewish wedding, Bling plays and sings such a rousing rendition of “Hava Nagila” that the yarmulke-wearing men and the veil-covered bride and her bridesmaids erupt in hectic dancing to his supercharged beat.

In an amusing number “Bart’s Confession,” Bart sings to Mitch “I slept with your mom” as Mitch listens incredulously, trying to digest that his buddy if her marries Sharon may soon become his stepfather. Henner as Sharon is very good at making eyes at Bart with bursts of sex appeal.

Yet another very funny song is provided by Ryan Duncan as Nick Styler, who at the keyboard in “Second Chances” desperately howls his angst to the skies. Kelli Barrett as Dani, on whom Mitch still has a crush, although they split up in earlier days and she is now the girlfriend of Tygen, makes the most of passionately singing her big number “I Just Want Real.”

If you want an idea of the verbal joke level, on the night I attended one of the biggest audience laughs came for the line about how to stop a cough—“Take a laxative and you’ll be afraid to cough.”

The band face-off itself comes across as anti-climactic, followed by plot strands that need working out. But the whole show ends in a blaze of rock and audience cheers for the collection of game performers during the extended curtain call. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed August 26, 2018.

PRETTY WOMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

When Samantha Barks as Vivian Ward sings the line “I sold my body but I never sold my soul” in the Broadway musical “Pretty Woman,” her emotional affirmation comes across as a salute to sex workers and their right to be considered with dignity. True, the show is just as much of a fairy tale as the film on which it is based, but it is a fun-filled fairy tale thanks largely to the charismatic lead performances by Barks and Andy Karl as Edward Lewis, the rich corporate raider who becomes smitten by Vivian and in addition to helping her to change her life also changes his own along the way.

The first thing required for going to see this musical is to forget trying to make comparisons with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, the memorable stars of the film. That was screen, this is stage, and the musical deserves to stand on its own in accordance with the very different requirements of song, dance and theatrical pizzazz. Barks and Karl do well on all counts and there is welcome chemistry between them.

The book by the late Garry Marshall and by J.F. Lawton follows the film’s storyline. As for the music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, the result is the sort of pop-rock style that lacks distinction but allows for Barks and others (notably Orfeh as her co-hooker pal Kit De Luca) to show off their pipes.

The story set-up involves Karl as Lewis in California to close a huge business deal acquiring a struggling shipping company and being intrigued by a brassy, crassly dressed but very pretty and sexy street hooker (Vivian). What starts out as a one-night romp in his luxurious suite at the Beverly Wilshire turns into a week of her company, during which they fall for each other and she gets a make-over. He mellows as a businessman, and she learns to assert her independence and self-respect.

Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, the show has plenty of flash, from the oppressively garish Hollywood Boulevard setting to the sophisticated Beverly Wilshire (scenic design by David Rockwell). The costume design by Gregg Barnes likewise ranges from gaudy to high fashion. The songs offer opportunities to Barks with such numbers as “Anywhere But Here,” “I Could Get Used to This” and “I Can’t Go Back,” and to Karl with “Something About Her” and “Freedom.” There is an exhilarating turn by soprano Allison Blackwell singing as Violetta in “La Traviata” when Edward escorts Vivian to the opera.

Among supporting performers, Eric Anderson exhibits his range playing both Happy Man, who cavorts as a kind of street MC singing about hopes and dreams for all, and also portrays the suave, sympathetic manager of the Beverly Wilshire. Tommy Bracco repeatedly enlivens the show as Giulio, the dancing bellhop who slips into scene after scene.

The appealing lead performances by Barks and Karl induce one to take the formulaic story more seriously than it deserves to be regarded. Overall the musical “Pretty Women” provides much entertainment as a Broadway entry more attuned to potential popularity than to art. At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 23, 2018.

LESS THAN 50%  Send This Review to a Friend

Gianmarco Soresi, who has written what is tabbed as an “unromantic comedy” called “Less Than 50%,” also co-stars in it with Hannah Hale. He is best when doing snatches of stand-up addressing the audience with some very funny lines pertaining to family, romance and sex.

Likewise, the most appealing parts of the very convoluted two-hander story that he has concocted are the amusing bits. As for the overall plot of two actors co-mingling work with their on-again-off-again love affair, whether romantic or unromantic, becomes a strain even at a running time of 80 minutes.

Both Soresi and Hale are very talented, and they work oh-so hard at trying to breathe reality into the tale. The author blends the personal story with the professional problems as he and Hale portray two aspiring actors who meet at college and forge ahead in a play he is developing with the hope of getting into the Fringe Festival and is finally winding up as part of the overall production under the busy direction by Jen Wineman in the intimate Theater C at 59E59 Theaters.

The show has been produced by Robin Milling in association with James Brent White, Todd & Elizabeth Donovan, Joann Farda, Jesse Kearney and New Light Theater Project. The title, by the way, refers to the author’s observation that less than 50% of first marriages work out, with the percentages declining further with each subsequent marriage.

The characters enacted, Gianmarco as himself and Hale as Laura, go through the complicated paces of their relationship onstage and off, sometimes hard for an audience to tell apart. It includes her falling for another guy, separations, reunions, recriminations and acting in the grand design of the play Gianmarco is determined to see staged.

There is a very maudlin ending gambit that apparently is meant to be moving, but comes across as hokey. Fortunately, the comic elements, especially as seen in Soresi’s standup gifts, do earn laughs. And both Soresi and Hale are appealing as actors despite the play’s repetitiousness and their need to handle an abundance of props visible on background shelves and snatched frequently for the machine-gun-like assortment of scenes. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed August 18, 2018.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN  Send This Review to a Friend

The first thing you should know about “Straight White Men,” the Second Stage presentation of the play by Young Jean Lee, is that you should arrive a few minutes before starting time, or if earlier, relax in the downstairs lobby. That way you can avoid the obnoxiously booming hip-hop music that attacks the eardrums from the moment seating begins. The musical assault is tenuously related to the play at the start in apologetic introductions by transgender Kate Bornstein, who describes herself as a gender theorist from the New Jersey shore and Ty Defoe, who self-identifies as a two-spirit Native American. They also have the duty of leading characters into positions at the start of scenes, a gambit that comes across as a useless and pretentious effort to frame the story that unfolds.

That arresting and provocative story, set in a Midwest home, winds up being very upsetting despite big doses of laughter. It involves a father and three sons gathered on Christmas Eve in the family home and continues over a two-day period. We first meet brothers Jake (Josh Charles) and Drew (Armie Hammer) as they engage in amusing rough play as overgrown kids, following the sort of routines remembered from their boyhood. Such antics are repeated at intervals, and while funny at first, they become a bit much.

Jake and Drew are visiting the home occupied by their widowed dad (Stephen Payne). Their brother, Matt (Paul Schneider) has moved in with dad for an indefinite stay. As the play develops, the interactions build to serious, deeply upsetting confrontations, especially with regard to Matt.

Jake, a banker, and Drew, a writer and teacher, are pursuing careers that rest on their lives of white privilege (hence the play’s title). This is illustrated when they dig out and play an amusing board game called “Privilege.” They are presumably models of success, although when things get heated, Drew remarks that he was once suicidal. The brothers, especially Jake, become furious with Matt for his total lack of ambition despite his excellent education. He is content to do menial work at a community organization and is paying off his crunching student loan, even refusing his father’s offer of a check to take care of the debt. At one moment Matt breaks down and cries, which upsets his brothers and dad more than it does him, and leads to suggestions that he seek psychiatric care.

The situation reaches absurdity when Matt is goaded into a make-believe job interview with his father to show how he should behave to achieve advancement. His sheepishness is very funny, but defines his apparent contentment with being simply who he is, resisting pressure to do otherwise. What subsequently happens leads us to feel sorry for Matt and wonder what will happen to him.

The actors are all very convincing in their characterizations. Thus the play becomes riveting despite its contrivances and unanswered questions. There is ample fuel for post-play thoughts and discussions, slickly engendered by the author’s writing. The production has been superbly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, despite the superfluous introductions. The set design by Todd Rosenthal works efficiently. At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.

HEAD OVER HEELS  Send This Review to a Friend

This isn’t the sort of musical that needs rave reviews. There are still fans of the all-female Go-Go’s band that hit it big time in the early 1980s for whom just hearing favorite songs again would be enough. However, the positive news is that the creators of “Head Over Heels” have cleverly put the numbers together with a plot based on a 16th century classic. It is a production that entertains on many counts, including showy performances, amusing costumes, savvy scenery, imaginative lighting and some updated gender exploration. To call this a jukebox musical would be denigrating. It comes through with a lot more than that as a fun-filled experience worth discovering on your own. In tune with the spirit, there is a five member, all-women band doing musical justice to the Go- Go’s repertoire.

“Head Over Heels” was conceived with an original book by Jeff Whitty based on “The Arcadia,” a classic narrative poem by prolific Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1585). This adaptation is by James Magruder, with Michael Mayer’s outsized direction, energized choreography by Spencer Liff and musical supervision, orchestration and arrangements by Tom Kitt. The assorted elements from cast to the technical expertise come together dynamically, starting with the rousing opening number “We Got the Beat,” the Go-Go’s signature hit.

The setting is Arcadia and environs, and the convoluted plot and relationships may remind you of Shakespearian entanglements. The characters include the arrogant King Basilius (Jeremy Kushner); his wife Gynecia (Rachel York); their hefty and brassy older daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan); their more timid younger daughter (Philoclea); the king’s viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins); his daughter Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), a handmaiden; Musidorus (Andrew Durand), a shepherd in love with Philoclea, and Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi (Peppermint). An eight-member ensemble adds boundless energy.

With predictions that Arcadia may fall, the king launches into intrigue. Off he goes to see the Oracle. The appearance of Peppermint as the Oracle is a blast. She is being touted as the first transgender woman to create a principal role on Broadway, and lavishly costumed Peppermint delivers with powerful comic elan.

The elder daughter Pamela is another highlight. She has trouble finding suitors to marry her, and as she tries to create poetry about her hoped-for perfect mate, the rhyming that keeps coming up indicates she needs someone with body parts like her own. It turns out that Mopsa fits the description in one of the show’s revelations. And Milligan as Pamela is a terrific singer, which she demonstrates handily with “How Much More.” Jones as Mopsa also impresses with her big number “Vacation.”

When Musidorus, the lowly shepherd is banned by the king from marrying Philoclea, he disguises himself as an Amazon warrior, and that sets off further adventure for the musical. Is there any doubt that the young lovers will eventually unite?

The king and his rebellious wife accidentally couple when the king thinks he is having sex with the Amazon, cleverly presented by shadows seen through a back-lit scrim. York is especially good as the feisty queen. There is a lot of such fun with the scenery, including a make-believe sea, with mermaids swimming and a fish diving in and out of the water. Almost everything is expressed with humor, as when we see the shepherd’s dancing sheep.

With it all the Go-Go’s numbers are deftly worked into the action. In addition to the aforementioned, there is a hit parade of other songs, including “Get Up and Go,” “Mad About You,” “Good Girl,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Head Over Heels,” “Lust for Love,” “Here You Are” etc.

Even if you never heard of the Go-Go’s you should find plenty to enjoy seeing the exuberant “Head Over Heels.” At the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street. Phone: 855-801-5876. Reviewed August 2, 2018.


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