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Going, going, gone with The Go-Go's

You might think a mashup of a 400-year-old pastoral romance and the music of ‘80s pop icons The Go-Go’s would come across as forced and awkward. In the case of Jeff Whitty’s “Head Over Heels,” you’d be right.

The musical comedy, which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, re-tells Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century “Arcadia” with a surfeit of brilliant choreography, gorgeous costumes, spectacular lighting and a terrific orchestra, all in service of a clever idea stretched thin and taken over the top.

On the OSF’s Elizabethan stage, the thing was all over the place: funny, unfunny, predictable, dazzling, annoying, exuberant, boring, childish, clever and lo-o-ong. It repeatedly went meta on us, with a fool (a funny John Tufts) chatting up the audience about the play and actors checking a script to see what would happen.

It was a world premiere, so one didn’t know what to expect going in, or what to make of the rumors: that the show was in trouble, that it was different — not just a play but a party — that intermission would be wild, something called a “Village of Interval,” with performers in off-stage mini-scenes, bands, backstage tours, a Go-Go’s karaoke. The aim was said to be to shake our bark off and blow away our complacency.

Since I’m OK with my complacency pretty much as it is and just wanted to use the restroom, I was untroubled by the absence of the rumored folderol anywhere I went at intermission.

The play was described by OSF as combining “razor-sharp wordplay, infectious songs and romantic surprises.” A few of the re-arranged songs did achieve a degree of infectiousness, but the romances weren’t that surprising, and the razor seemed to have lost its edge.

An example: When we were kids you would recite fractured rhymes so that a stanza ended with a naughty — but unspoken — word, and everybody got it and everybody laughed. This form of wit made it into the play, with Pamela (Bonnie Milligan), a daughter of Basilius (Michael Sharon) and Gynicia (Miriam A. Laube), reciting doggerel in which each stanza ended with unspoken and increasingly squirm-inducing words for female body parts. This got big laughs.

In the story, Basilius, the play’s control-freak representative of the Patriarchy, whose name suggests a bacterial infection, takes his wife Gynicia, whose name evokes the Sisterhood, on a road trip. They are accompanied by their daughters, Pamela, whose name means “made from honey,” and Philoclea (Tala Ashe), whose name means “love of glory” The family is joined by a sexy Amazon warrior, Musidorus (muse, adore us?), played by Dylan Paul, who is actually a young shepherd in drag. Romantic goings-on both straight and gay, gender-bending action, a “bed trick” and many perky pop songs ensue as everybody seeks self-knowledge and a bit of romp.

Think “Cinderella” meets “A Knight’s Tale” meets "Rocky Horror" in Far Far Away.

Space is limited, so let’s just list a few of the highlights and lowlights.

The good: Some of the songs. The eight-piece orchestra. Making the tunes advance the action (especially “Mad About You” as “our song” for Philoclea and Musidorus). Carmel Dean’s adaptations of the Go-Go’s songbook. Loren Shaw’s costumes. Jane Cox’s lighting. Tufts’ poofy fool.

The bad: Some of the songs. Lame jokes. Childish humor. A harum-scarum quality of things just not coming together. Politically correct preaching to the choir. Actors telling us The Meaning of it all instead of letting it emerge from the action. Stretching it over 22 songs and three-plus hours.

Whitty is an audacious playwright who’s not afraid to take risks. His “The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” at OSF in 2008 was brilliant. And parts of “Head Over Heels” are just plain fun. With major cuts and a small cast it might make a good panto-style cabaret show, but despite flashes of brilliance here and there, it didn’t knock us head over heels.

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

From left, Tala Ashe, John Tufts, Bonnie Milligan and Britney Simpson appear in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's premiere of 'Head Over Heels.' Photo courtesy of Jenny Graham