REVIEW | ‘Girlfriend’: Fine, Fizzy Romance with Killer Soundtrack

Let’s flash back to 1993, to the days before texting and ready Internet access, when living in a small town really could feel like living on the moon. We are in Nebraska, but it might as well be any small town in Kentucky, Indiana, England. Let us say we are dorks, friendless and stilted, moving through high school like occasionally kicked stray dogs. Or. We are wearing someone else’s life, someone popular and ambitious and accomplished and right, holding our breath until we can leave this town and shed the fake skin like a bad sweater.

Let us say that one of us grew up and wrote a lovely play about this corner of the moon, and set it to the music of our favorite tape, beginning with Matthew Sweet’s “I’ve Been Waiting,” the sweetest song this side of Big Star’s “Thirteen.”

Todd Almond’s “Girlfriend,” a rock musical set to Matthew Sweet’s iconic 1991 power pop album of the same name, opened last night at Actors Theatre of Louisville. “Girlfriend” is a winsome crowd-pleaser, a finely acted, delicate and charming romance between two adorable protagonists, Will (Ryder Bach), a nerd who finds himself being courted, sort of, by Mike (Curt Hansen), the handsome jock who turns out to be much more. Almond’s intelligent, witty and unabashedly romantic script brims with authentic dialog, astute observations and heart-stopping moments of pure vulnerability  every muttered “whatever” contains multitudes. 

In his brief pre-show speech, artistic director Les Waters, who directed this production as well as the 2010 world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, entreated the audience to “open your hearts very wide” to “Girlfriend.” The house complied – I haven’t witnessed such an openly appreciative group in the Pamela Brown in years. For once, the standing ovation felt spontaneous and  genuine, not obligatory, a satisfying end for an audience whose laughter and audible oh!s rang throughout the performance.

In an impressive season brimming with skillful and heartbreaking depictions of doomed, tragic dysfunction, “Girlfriend” is a sweet, fizzy treat, a show I can recommend without qualifying first that “it’s excellent, but I wouldn’t exactly say it’s fun.”

Let me say that I graduated high school in the flannelled late spring of 1994 and I am a sucker for watching cute boys fall in love, so “Girlfriend” pretty much had me from the overture. Like Sweet himself, this is a Nineties show with a hefty dose of New Sincerity, missing most of the weary cynicism and all of the bad haircuts of our actual youth. It’s a musical for the baggy cardigan, hands-stuffed-in-pockets shuffle-swaying at the show set, hearkening back to the days pre-“Glee” and “Smash” and whatever else that’s made musical theater cool again.

“Girlfriend” really is fun, from Will and Mike driving the back roads screaming along to their favorite songs to nearly every bizarrely funny thing that comes out of Will’s mouth (“I’ve been waiting my entire life for a boy to ask me to run errands with him.”). Their romance is so delicately wrought that to simply watch their hands inch close, only to retreat in haste, is as satisfying as the most epic on-stage journey.

Bach originated the role of Will in the Berkeley Rep production, and it’s hard to imagine another actor so fully embodying this character. This isn’t a heavily choreographed musical – Joe Goode has wisely designed dance moves that feel more like private goofing around than full-blown gotta-sing-gotta-dance numbers – but Bach moves at all times with the kinesthetic intelligence of a born dancer, allowing his body to react when Will’s face and voice cannot. And he’s hilarious – his deadpan delivery of Almond’s witty lines allow the private Will to shine, even as public Will shrinks in fear of the future and the wide world. Hansen is a charming foil, his bravado melting as he slowly makes himself as vulnerable as Will has been all along. 

Both are strong singers, but they steer clear of that familiar musical theater gloss, allowing their vocals the raw emotion of the shotgun seat aria and the shared, half-hummed chorus. Bandleader Julie Wolf strikes a nice balance between faithful renditions of Sweet’s classics and new arrangements that better fit individual scenes, and with Sara Lee, Kelly Richey and Jyn Yates, the band is on point and ever-present, but never overshadows the action.

David Zinn’s dual-hemisphere set is suitably spare up front where the action happens. A couch functions as Mike’s car, home base for their romance, as well as the centerpiece of his bedroom. Behind them, though, an authentically cluttered basement practice room, complete with wood paneling, overlapping posters and Christmas lights, houses the band. It looks like a music video set from the early Nineties, straight out of “120 Minutes,” – which is to say, perfect.

Social media buzzed with “remember your first love!” after opening night, but I’ll go one further and say that “Girlfriend” gives audiences, gay and straight, the first love experience any lonely teen could have wished for, minus any of the awful, selfish, mean, regrettable things we might have actually said and done to one another in our awkward pasts. It’s absolution with an amazing soundtrack. Will and Mike are good guys who like each other, so sit back, roll down the windows, and enjoy the ride. 

“Girlfriend” runs through February 17.

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