Girlfriend is a poignant musical that opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the Los Angeles area that recalls first love with music by altrock veteran Matthew Sweet. Girlfriend happens to be about a couple of Nebraska boys finding love (with each other) the summer after finishing high school. When Will and Mike are singing about a girlfriend, they are really beginning to acknowledge their nascent romantic feelings for each other. Whether gay or straight, the tender story and awkwardness of first love are relatable for everyone.
The story, which is set in 1993, starts high school graduation day. Will, played by Ryder Bach, declares it “New Year’s Day,” and expresses how grateful he is to have survived the ordeal of being a gay, nerd with a love of musicals in a Midwest high school. “This year, I resolve to drop my bad habit of learning things,” he smirked. He is tearing up his books and also singing “Should auld acquaintance be forgot? Yes!”
Mike, played by Curt Hansen, is the classic Prom King (“or runner up” – Will is not sure) jock who has a full ride to college in the fall. He is planning to be pre-med to please his doctor dad and talks a lot about an out-of-town girlfriend. Mike clearly wants to protect his reputation and live up to expectations, but he considers graduation to be a chance to stop denying his feelings.
When the handsome jock calls and asks him to the movies, Will proclaims, “My life has finally become the musical I always thought it was.” After their first trip to the movies as friends, he comments, “I feel as if I’m in ‘Grease.’ The movie, not the country.” The line is clearly intended to show how universal the story of the popular kid hooking up over summer with someone unexpected is.”
The more time they hang out or talk on the phone (or sing harmonies), the world seems right, even if they have not yet realized their feelings for each other. They are in the car singing “And then I saw you coming my way. Don’t you need to get in the arms of a good friend? Oh, cuz believe me, I’d sure love to call you my girlfriend.” Slowly, they start singing it to each other, grasping a deeper, personal meaning and attraction. They use the song, and others, to express what they cannot say directly to each other.
The show as directed by Les Waters, who staged an earlier version at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2010, patiently allows the characters to realize their attraction. The audience knows they will eventually kiss, but enjoys and recalls the awkward moves to get closer, put an arm around the other and then timidly kiss. The gulf they cross is not just the hesitation of new love; they also need to deal with Mike’s jock friends and hesitation to show who he really is.
Eventually the characters feel comfortable to really enjoy each other’s company, singing and dancing. They eventually do not care who knows about them. For Will, it is love. For Mike, he knows he is leaving for college and no longer feels the need to conform to expectations.
The musical’s songs are largely from Sweet’s 1991 Girlfriend album, with three from other Sweet albums. The lyrics propel the plot, but the witty dialog by Todd Almond adds context. Music director Julie Wolf and her four-woman band add the right levels of exuberance and edge to the music.
Bach is sweet and believable as the geeky character, who offers wry comments and winsome expressions. Hanson is great at conveying his discomfort trying on a new life. He has a powerful voice that sometimes overpowered Back a little, but most of the time they were great together.
For those looking for a small, intimate musical or a great date night, Girlfriend is touching. Girlfriend, with its altrock music and story that recalls anyone’s first love, will be at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in the Culver City section of Los Angeles County through August 9, 2015.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance July 19, 2015
Center Theatre Group: Girlfriend
Los Angeles Times: In ‘Girlfriend,’ Matthew Sweet’s lyrics tell the story
Playbill: Sweet’s “Girlfriend” CD Gets a Musical Theatre Makeover
Photos by Craig Schwartz, courtesy Center Theatre Group