16th-century epic verse a-Go-Go!

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Friday April 13, 2018
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"I could die tomorrow," says Peppermint, when asked about her career ambitions. "I have loved musicals since I was in the womb." The season nine runner-up on RuPaul's Drag Race is currently appearing in Head Over Heels at the Curran Theatre here in San Francisco.

"Drag was really a detour for me," she explains. "I was auditioning for anything and everything in New York theater, but there wasn't room for anyone with my gender expression."

Now, almost two decades after starting her climb to the top of the drag scene, Peppermint, aka Agnes Moore (and the one-time Kevin Moore), is about to become the first transgender actress ever to originate a major role on Broadway. Following its exclusive San Francisco tryout, Head Over Heels moves to Manhattan for an open-ended run at the Hudson Theater beginning in late June.

The show, created by much of the team behind the Tony-winning 2014 revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and featuring the songs of the Go-Go's, is an unexpected musical comedy hybrid of drum- and guitar-based pop beautifully rearranged and orchestrated by Tom Kitt (Next To Normal, If/Then), and a plot drawn from Sir Philip Sidney's epic 16th-century poem Arcadia. Oh yeah, the dialogue is all in verse.

On paper, this concept could confound today's audiences as much as Peppermint's gender expression confounded theater producers 20 years ago. But when brought to life onstage, Peppermint says, "It's such a fun show, and there's an underlying theme about the quest for true equality, regardless of gender or sexuality."

The plot, with includes some profound but never belabored echoes of today's politics, concerns a kingdom that feels frozen in time, and leaders who resist making changes to meet the needs of its people.

"I didn't know what to think at first," admits actor Tom Alan Robbins, recalling the first time his agent approached him about Head Over Heels. The Broadway veteran, who plays overbearing King Dametas, was concerned that "people would assume it was a jukebox musical that told the story of the Go-Go's career."

But after reading the script and participating in a workshop in Poughkeepsie, New York, Robbins was smitten. "The fact of the matter is that, for this show, the story came first. If someone who didn't know the Go-Go's came to see it, they'd feel like the songs were written for the purpose of telling this story.

"This isn't at all like Mamma Mia," Robbins continues, "where the script was cleverly written so that songs could be shoehorned into the plot. Part of the fun for audiences in that show was figuring out the puzzle of what song was about to be sung."

Robbins points out that, except to their most hardcore fans, "only a handful of the Go-Go's songs are really well-known." Only three Go-Go's singles - "Our Lips Are Sealed," "We Got the Beat" and "Vacation" - ever made the Top 20 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Compare that to the whopping 22 Top 20 hits available to the creators of Jersey Boys. So it's essential that the show be more than a nostalgia-driven hit-delivery device.

"This show is so hard to describe until you've seen it," says choreographer Spencer Liff, best-known for his work on So You Think You Can Dance. "That's part of why we wanted to open in San Francisco. Audiences here tend to be really open to fresh ideas, and willing to take a look at new work."

Part of the freshness Liff brings to his contribution comes from the fact that the Go-Go's were not a part of his own adolescent musical canon.

"Now that I've been working with them, I love the songs. But at first, I mainly remembered them as something my Mom listened to. Their first album [Beauty and the Beat, 1981] came out four years before I was born," says the 33-year-old.

In approaching the choreography, Liff says, "I didn't want to do anything particularly reminiscent of either court dancing from the 16th century or dance styles from the 1980s, when the Go-Go's were popular. Instead, I decided to make the movement as modern as possible. I pulled from clubs and queer culture; there's some really intricate, percussive choreography that does draw on voguing and tutting, but it's not how you would have seen those styles in the 1980s."

Tutting, ironically, is an almost anti-Go-Go dance form, having had its brief moment in the mainstream spotlight thanks to "Walk Like an Egyptian," a hit by rival 80s girlband The Bangles.

Like his colleagues, Liff understands that marketing a work as original as Head Over Heels poses a challenge, but he's confident that San Francisco audiences will connect with it and generate organic publicity.

"It's so hard to explain the show in a way that gets potential audiences interested before anyone's seen it. I mean, a cross between Elizabethan farce and the Go-Go's? You might not think that would work. But it works amazingly. This is going to be a big word-of-mouth show."

The producers and company of Head Over Heels are counting on Bay Area audiences to break an old Go-Go's oath by keeping their lips anything but sealed.

Head Over Heels, Curran Theatre, now through May 6. Tickets ($29-$165): www.sfcurran.com.