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Theater review: 'Girlfriend' at Berkeley Rep

April 18, 2010 |  3:03 pm

Girfriend 1
Reporting from Berkeley—The old formula of romantic comedy—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back—receives a same-sex makeover in “Girlfriend,” the sweet and simple, if slightly overstretched, new musical incorporating songs from Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album of the same title.
 
This gay teen romance, which is having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, is quaint in every sense—appealingly old fashioned, unusual in a pleasing way and just plain incongruous, the latter pertaining more to the work’s form than subject matter. To call this two-hander a show is almost to misrepresent its uncaffeinated charms. Think of it as a music-dappled one-act, with an intermission needlessly plunked down two-thirds of the way through.

The book, written by Todd Almond, concerns itself with two teens from Alliance, Nebraska (Almond and Sweet’s home state). Will (Ryder Bach) is a musical theater nerd, targeted by his classmates with all the usual homophobic poison, and Mike (Jason Hite) is a jock golden boy whom no one would suspect has anything to conceal.  

Girlfirend 2 It’s the summer of 1993, and they've both just graduated from high school. Mike is heading to college to attempt to fulfill his demanding father’s dream for him, even though he'd rather be playing guitar; Will is simply overjoyed with being through with his hamster-wheel humiliations at school. His only plan is to savor his newfound freedom, but he’s sure intrigued when Mike calls him up and invites him to a drive-in movie. (See what I mean about quaint?)

As Mike is closeted and both he and Will are in that largely unconscious state between adolescence and adulthood, the deepest communication between them occurs musically. Obsessed with Sweet’s haunting rock grooves, they launch into versions of the songs to each other on the phone or in Mike’s car. Although Sweet’s lyrics are pitched to the opposite sex, these young men have no trouble co-opting them to suit their own clandestine longings.

Eight of the tracks are from “Girlfriend,” but two other Sweet recordings, "Altered Beast" and "100% Fun" contribute to the 11-song total. None of the numbers, however, function in the typical musical theater way of sharpening characterization and advancing plot. What they do instead is establish hormonally driven moods and reveal the universal sentiments inspiring memorable pop tunes.

High schoolers have a knack for turning even banal occasions into karaoke moments, which is why Will and Mike’s eruptions seem perfectly natural. Granted, most such spontaneous outpourings aren’t backed by a band as hard-charging as the all-female one led by musical director Julie Wolf that accompanies the boys, but the effect of hearing “I’ve Been Waiting” and “You Don’t Love Me” will bring you back to your own awkward age, even if this is your first encounter with Sweet’s accessible sound. 

The first act of “Girlfriend” teases its way toward a first kiss. These boys are innocents, not the kind to drunkenly stumble into sexual acts, like the majority of red-blooded American adolescents, gay and straight alike. They talk around their attraction, keeping one eye on the horror movie they’re pretending to enjoy, the other for any reaction that might hint at a future erotic breakthrough.
 
Almond has essentially written a prolonged game of footsie, one in which, for a long time, neither party acknowledges that there’s any funny business going on under the table. This is probably more enjoyable to play than to watch, but the production finds compensations for the work’s dramatic thinness.

Chief among these virtues are the amiable presences of the two leads. Bach provides some genuine twinkle to his twink role, turning Will into an ironic commentator of his own gradually shifting predicament. In recounting Mike’s initial overture to him to hang out (an offer that included a tape of Sweet hits Mike made for him, accompanied by an improvised vocal riff), Will jokes, “My life has finally become the musical I always suspected it was.” 

Hite’s expressive high points come through singing. His character is more traditionally good looking, but has a blander personality. But when he wails, emotion comes alive onstage, relieving the pressure cooker of Mike’s strait-jacketed internal life.
 
Unlike the other successful indie rock musicals launched by Berkeley Rep (“Passing Strange” and “American Idiot”), “Girlfriend” doesn’t seem to be on a fast-track to Broadway. The whole look of Waters’ production, which features David Zinn's bare bones sets (comprising a ratty couch, an unremarkable bed and a paneled area where the band plays) and vibrant age-fixing costumes, is intentionally unfussy. If “Girlfriend” were a musical film, it would be closer to the Irish sleeper “Once” than any of Rob Marshall’s Oscar-vying blockbusters.

The second act, which deals with the complications of consummation—in short, how do you meld lives heading in different directions?—left me feeling restless. Part of the problem is that Almond doesn’t draw his characters fully—Will and Mike are their dilemma, not much more. (Is their attachment merely a small-town case of limited options?) Also, the pacing gets sluggish. Surely, there are ways of depicting frustration and delay without imposing them on an audience.

But the ultimate impact of “Girlfriend” reminded me of a recent channel surfing experience, in which I happened to catch Justin’s first kiss with a boy on the ABC series “Ugly Betty.” Any appraising thoughts about the tenderly handled scene were quickly eclipsed by gratitude that some young person out there watching might understand that he’s all right and not alone. If he has eclectic good taste in music, he could even have Sweet blaring from his headphones.  

--Charles McNulty

follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

Photos: Top, Ryder Bach, left, and Jason Hite; bottom, Hite and Bach. Credit: kevinberne.com 

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