This is the most gloriously insane show Broadway has seen in ages…indeed, possibly in the entire course of its history. Who would have thought anyone would even come up with the idea to combine Elizabethan poetry, Eighties Girl-Group New-Wave, and Transgender politics, let alone manage to make an artistically successful whole out of them?
Pretty much everything about the show is perfectly of-a-piece in its own strange way and fits flawlessly into its odd aesthetic, but the lynchpin of its success is its hilarious book, one of the finest Broadway librettos I have yet encountered. The benchmark for Broadway musical farces is generally considered to be Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s libretto to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I can attest that this show’s book is every bit the equal of that work if not more.
The show features a rich mine of potent dirty humor, but what really sends it over-the-top is the fact that said humor is delivered in exceptionally witty faux-Elizabethan language. This idiom can even make what would otherwise be ordinary statements sound hilarious (e.g. “Between mouth and ear, the wrong hole is agape”). The combination of the archaic, ultra-sophisticated wording of the dialogue and its unapologetically crude content makes for an endless string of hysterical verbal paradoxes, and there is even some genuine Shakespearian-style grandeur to the more serious moments in Act Two
The show also manages to play its upending of our culture’s preconceived ideas about gender as outrageously funny and subversive rather than preachy. Only in one short segment near the end of Act Two does the show come across as overtly didactic, when the character of Pythio’s backstory is revealed. Apart from that one scene, everything is first and foremost at the service of the comedy and general insanity, so that even those who might have reservations about the show’s particular brand of LGBT politics could still easily enjoy it as theater.
Apart from the elaborate play on gender roles and politics, the show’s plot is actually a pretty close pastiche of an Elizabethan farce, using most of the same tropes and devices and even harkening back to Greek mythology by throwing a little origin-of-the-seasons myth into the story. However, seeing the unlikely way that the cryptically-worded prophecies that form the basis of the plot are fulfilled make this otherwise fairly traditional farce plot seem deliciously unpredictable, lighting up the face with a knowing smile every time it becomes clear what one of them means.
The Go-Gos songs that make up the score are completely incompatible with the idiom in which the dialogue is written, but that’s part of the point. This show takes the jarring quality that most Jukebox musicals suffer when a pre-existing song bursts out of a scene, and enhances it until it becomes a major part of the show’s outrageous comedy.
And the songs do at least make reasonable sense for the characters, thanks partly to the fact that the score digs much deeper into the band’s catalogue than do most Jukebox musicals. The expected standards are there (“We Got the Beat”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, the title-song), but the show delves deep into the band’s later post-reunion albums from the Nineties and 2000s for much of its score in order to find songs that actually fit in well with its situations. As a result, despite their hilarious mismatch with the style of the dialogue, the songs still manage to function as genuine expressions of the characters’ feelings.
The musical highlights are a deeply touching “Here You Are”, sung at the Eleven-O’clock spot during a funeral scene, and a deliciously sardonic handling of the biggest solo hit by the band’s lead singer Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven is a Place on Earth”. The original version of that song had been one of the most romantic hit songs of the Eighties, and the almost shocking way its romanticism is undercut by the performance and staging of this scene is perhaps the greatest of all the show’s moments of subversive triumph.
There are several moments in this production, particularly the visual sight gags (such as actors in deliberately bad sheep costumes dancing across the stage or a ridiculous pantomime sequence with an actor playing a lion) that would have seemed profoundly embarrassing in any other show. But somehow, because this show simply refuses to be embarrassed, even its silliest jokes wind up playing effectively, and things that would be pure “floppo” in any other context are transformed by sheer confidence into successful theatrical flourishes.
It doesn’t hurt that the cast is uniformly superb, either. Bonnie Milligan’s part as the elder Princess is a deliberate and surprisingly complex comic play on the nature of beauty standards, and the actress has exactly the right combination of unconventional looks and raw sex appeal to achieve the necessary balance. Alexandra Socha is touching and even rather sad as the lonely younger princess, helping to give the show an emotional center underneath its wild ribaldry. As Musidorus, the cross-dressing shepherd who loves her, Andrew Durand proves to be amazingly adept and versatile at both verbal and physical comedy, and seems like he might well have stardom in his future: in any case, he displays an enormous amount of potential and skill in the part and is definitely a performer to watch.
Still, the performers who truly wind up stealing the show are longtime theatrical veteran Rachel York and Broadway newcomer Peppermint. York gives a tremendously dignified and grandiose performance highly reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn, with the result that, in the handful of moments when she gives in to the show’s campy tone, it feels like watching Hepburn herself forsake her grand-dame dignity in such a hilarious manner.
As for Peppermint, the character she plays (Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi), is on stage for probably less than half an hour of this two-plus hour show, yet Peppermint has so much charisma that she still makes the role feel like a star part, eliciting chills from the audience each time her character makes an appearance. (I hope I’m using the right pronoun here. I know the character of Pythio is non-binary (“they”), but everything I’ve read indicates that the performer who plays them, Peppermint, is a transwoman, and would thus presumably prefer to be called “she”. If I am in error here, please forgive me).
Given that the show seems unlikely to experience much success on the road and in local theater settings due to its esoteric subject matter (to say nothing of the difficulty of finding another cast who can play these roles), it seems like it would make an ideal choice for the now increasingly common practice of filming Broadway musicals for screening in movie theaters. I have reason to believe it possible that something of this sort was actually being arranged on the night of my second attendance to the show. But even if this is not yet the case, I hope my suggestion reaches the ears of someone who could make it happen, because this show is far too much of a creatively hilarious gem to be lost to the theatrical mists of time.