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Upfront disclosure: Mei-lang and I had never heard of the Go-Go’s until we settled into seats G19 and G21 of Ashland’s outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theater. We opened our Playbills to learn that the new musical “Head Over Heels,” which is enjoying its world premiere this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), is scored entirely with the cumulative opus of this (to us) unknown rock band.
Mei-lang leaned over to ask the sweet-faced matron in G23 “So who are these Go-Go’s?” That earned us a pitying look: “Where have you been?” (Answer: in Asia, far from the reach of Western pop radio, for a couple of decades). Ah, that explained it, as far as our seatmate was concerned. “They were the it group right through the 80’s and 90’s, chart toppers. The first all-female band to write, arrange and perform all their own songs. DJ faves at our high school proms, radio sound-track to our first play dates when we were all young mothers…” Her teenaged daughter, in G25, rolled her heavily mascara’d eyes.
I groaned, internally. Looks like we’ve let ourselves in for a three-hour jukebox musical – a vanity vehicle for some has-been band and a nostalgic wallow for persons-of-a-certain-age (and nobody else). Too late to bolt, though. The doors were about to close and costumed performers in vaguely 16th century attire were already circulating within the crowd – part of director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s “village” concept of offering the audience a “contact high” with the cast, according to the program notes; another Ashland dose of metatheater.
And just then a latecomer scrambled along our row into the last vacant seat in the house – a gangly, 40-ish fellow with a wispy beard and a single earring. He settled into G17 beside me and blew a kiss to one of the circulating actors (a courtly pageboy in knee-breeches and blue-tinged perruque). Hardly conformed to my image of the Go-Go demographic. To confirm my suspicions, I tried out Mei-lang’s query on my new neighbor: “So do you know much of this girl-band’s music?”
“A fair bit, actually. You see, I wrote this show.”
I gulped down my embarrassment and tried to remember the author’s name from the Playbill. “You mean you’re Twitty?”
“Close. It’s Whitty.”
That’d be Jeff Whitty, a Jefferson State homeboy from Coos Bay. Back in his college days in Eugene, he’d already dreamt of somehow dramatizing Philip Sidney’s pastoral romance “Arcadia.” But how to wrestle its sprawling structure onto the contemporary stage? As daunting, in its way, as Whitty’s later challenge of somehow crafting a musical out of the entire Go-Go’s repertoire without sinking into the pitfalls of the jukebox genre.
But a lawyer friend kept urging the Tony Award-winning playwright to acquire the Go-Go’s songbook when the rights became available. Whitty remained cool to the idea until he hit upon a quirky inspiration. A double negative equals a positive: why not combine these two unlikely projects by scoring Sir Philip to the girl band’s New Wave beat? Amazingly enough, the Go-Go’s agreed, giving him free rein to adapt their work as needed.
“Did you have to change much?” Mei-lang asked.
“Hardly a word of the lyrics.”
What did change was the sequencing of the songs, which Whitty artfully intercut with each other to suit the emotional dynamic of his story line. He recruited an old friend, Carmel Dean, as music supervisor and arranger to recast the songs for the dramatically appropriate mix of voices and an eight-member onstage instrumental ensemble. The resulting tonalities resonate from upbeat rock to Renaissance folk. Darker, richer and more complex, on the whole, than the 1980’s originals – so much so that longtime Go-Go devotees (e.g. G23) couldn’t necessarily spot the tunes right off the bat.
Tudor purists might be equally hard-pressed to recognize Sir Philip’s prosody in every line of the script. The dialogue veers without warning from 16th century grandiloquence to American street slang, from hip-hop cadences to stately iambs. Whitty also plays fast and loose with some of the plot points and dramatis personae, recasting roles and storylines to further raunchify the already amply risqué undertones of “Arcadia.”
From the moment they run up the Rainbow Banner on the Allen Theater flagpole, we know we’re in for the full Elizabethan gamut of cross-dressing, mistaken identity grope-in-the-dark bed pairings, puerile puns and ribaldry. Shakespeare himself, after all, learned a lot of these tropes from Sidney. But in Whitty’s hands they take on a distinctly LBGT cast, all the more so given the over-the-top flamboyance of Loren Shaw’s costume designs and Christopher Acebo’s stage décor.
Lead actors all rise to the occasion, blending (not bending) genders with abandon. John Tufts, who has presented OSF audiences with various shades of machismo from Prince Hal to Chico Marx, here turns himself into a mincing court jester-cum-narrator. Ashland newcomers Bonnie Mulligan and Britney Simpson surprise themselves and each other by evolving in the course of the play from vituperative frenemies to bosom buddies.
In pursuit of an overly self-effacing princess (Tala Ashe), a bumbling, lovelorn shepherd (OSF neophyte Dylan Paul) masquerades as an Amazon warrior, thereby inciting the unwanted lust of both of his inamorata’s parents. In the ensuing mix-up, the elder royals manage (after a bout of mutual recrimination) to rekindle their own fading romance. Longtime Ashland headliner Miriam Laube plays the post-menopausal queen opposite Festival newcomer Michael Sharon as the preening king. I found their mutual chemistry rather more convincing than the title characters’ in this season’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
And on top of their bravura acting and bringing the Go-Go songs to life, the “Head Over Heels” cast dance up a storm. Choreographer Sonya Tayeh marshals them briskly, with clockwork precision, all the while fostering an illusion of campy, loose-jointed “Rocky Horror” style improvisational brio.
The whole high-gloss package feels like a spirited victory lap for the many Gay Rights triumphs of the past few years. Whitty’s improbable collation is enough to convince you that there really might be such a thing as the elusive “Homosexual Agenda” of blogospheric fame. If so, it seems a pretty anodyne – even generous – agenda. Overblown as they may be, there’s nothing cartoonish about these characters. They remain humane and sympathetic throughout. It’s hard not to wish them well by the final Go-Go chorus.
Don’t miss “Head Over Heels.” Bring your kids for the high jinks. And the agenda.