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The Go-Go's go Elizabethan

When Jeff Whitty called Carmel Dean to ask whether she’d like to arrange the music of The Go-Go’s for a new musical based on a story by the Elizabethan poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney, she didn’t hesitate.

“Rock music in Elizabethan times,” she says, “seemed like a perfect fit.”

The results will be visible — and audible — when “Head Over Heels” has its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Theatre tonight.

Whitty, a Tony-winning playwright who lives in New York, based the book for the musical on what’s come to be known as “Old Arcadia,” Sidney’s original version of “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia,” a pastoral romance he wrote in prose for his sister, who had it published in 1593, several years after his death.

Dean is a pianist and composer who has been an arranger and music director on and off-Broadway and has performed at the Grammy and Tony award shows. She was born in 1978, the same year the all-girl Go-Go’s came out of the Los Angeles punk movement and developed a bouncy pop sound that helped define the ‘80s.

But she’s a longtime fan of Go-Go’s lead singer Belinda Carlisle, who went on to have a successful solo career. So she was familiar with the music.

And she’d already formed a friendship with Whitty, who is from Coos Bay, when the two worked on Whitty’s 2011 musical, “Tales of the City,” at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Whitty’s “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” played at OSF in 2008.

“Arcadia” is a road story about a duke who takes his family on a trip where they’re joined by an Amazon warrior who is actually a shepherd in drag. As the characters seek love and self-understanding, romantic complications ensue.

Dean says that despite the odd-couple sources, “Head Over Heels” is in many ways a conventional musical. It has more than 20 songs. The songs come at emotional moments when the characters stop talking. And they advance the story.

But she says it’s not quite a jukebox musical in the sense of, say, “American Idiot,” (based on the music of Green Day) in that the play doesn’t exist solely as a vehicle for the songs. Rather, the music has been adapted to fit an existing story.

Dean’s job was to arrange the songs to fit the tale. For example, she used “Mad About You,” a song Carlisle recorded in 1986, to provide a musical thread throughout the play.

“It’s a love story,” Dean says. “The bass line is the heartbeat the characters feel, ba ba bump, ba ba bump.”

She used the Go-Go’s song “Vacation,” the video for which showed the singers waterskiing in tiaras, to create a musical surprise.

“I don’t want to give it away,” she says. “But I’ve turned the arrangement on its head.”

The production features an eight-piece orchestra that’s essentially a classical trio of violin, cello and woodwinds mashed up with a rock band of guitars, bass, drums and keyboards.

“We wanted to blend rock and classical and a million other things that fall between,” she says.

Dean hasn’t met the Go-Go’s, some of whom are reportedly expected to attend the opening, but they’ve been emailing during the development of the play, and Dean says they’ve been highly supportive.

“They haven’t heard the arrangements,” she says. “Even turning them on their heads, I think we’re treating the songs with the utmost respect. I’m hoping their fans will love it.”

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Carmel Dean arranged the music of The Go-Go's for a new musical, 'Head Over Heels,' at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch