It’s fitting that the musical Girlfriend, which opened last night at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, is playing Los Angeles in the summer. Summer is practically a character in the show, both driving the events and creating the perfect backdrop to take the audience back to a place of young love and longing.
The show, which had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2010, features songs from alternative rock musician Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album of the same name. Combined beautifully with a poignant and funny book by Todd Almond, the plot follows two teenage boys, Will (Ryder Bach) and Mike (Curt Hansen), as they fall in love in Nebraska in the summer of 1993. The set-up is classic—Will is an oft-made-fun-of awkward introvert, Mike the popular jock secretly struggling with his sexuality. While these archetypes may be frequently used in stories like this, the emotions in the show are nothing but honest and raw, enabling this particular love story to really come to life.
I was unfamiliar with Sweet’s music prior to seeing Girlfriend, and it was a very pleasant surprise—catchy, sweet rock songs and ballads that fit the 18-year-old characters well. Rather than having the characters burst randomly into song, the music was incorporated into the plot. Mike is a guitar player, and he and Will would make a point out of “putting on” or playing the songs and bonding over the music so that all of the singing was actually a part of the characters’ lives. I was incredibly impressed by how well Almond’s book, which I found to be the standout of the musical, incorporated the songs into the narrative. While the music, sung wonderfully by Bach, Hansen, and the onstage band, was solid, the characters shined brightest in the simple dialogue scenes. The set is not extravagant—a couch center stage transforms into a car, a bed, and basically anything that is needed, and there are few props aside from a CD player, a guitar, and phones. As it should be, there are few distractions from the characters’ inner turmoil and budding relationship.
While on paper they may fit the stereotypes of the introvert and the jock, Mike and Will both surprised me at several turns by just how fleshed-out they were as characters, often making different choices than you would expect. While the introvert is usually written as nerdy and academic, Will hasn’t even applied to college and has little to no plan for his life beyond the summer. Mike impressed me by handling certain situations far better than I expected him to, and shows quite a bit of growth throughout the show. I realize I am discussing them as if they are real people, which is because that’s how it felt. This is entirely due to the extraordinary performances of Bach and Hansen, who have palpable chemistry and readily carried the entire 90-minute production. Bach, who has been with the show since its inception, was innocent and endearing, and moments such as his excitement when Mike first sings to him make you melt. Hansen did an excellent job of subtly portraying the conflict between Mike’s forced outer confidence and inner confusion, conveying a great deal by doing very little.
When the show began, I noticed I was watching with a bit of trepidation. I expected that, both for drama’s sake and because the story was about two gay, somewhat star-crossed lovers in 1993 Nebraska, things wouldn’t end well for Will and Mike. It seems I was missing the point. Girlfriend is not big on conflict—at least not external conflict. There are no earth-shattering events or insurmountable obstacles thrown the boys’ way. It is a simple story about figuring out who you are at a time, the end of high school, that is a major crossroads in everyone’s life. It’s a story about summer love, and two boys coming into their own together. It is not sensationalized, and this is what makes it feel so sweet and real—it is an everyday story featuring everyday people. I do wish the show ended on a stronger beat. While there is, arguably, a climax in the story, the resolution is rather swift and uneventful, and the final scene felt a bit tacked on. But this is something that can be worked on for future productions of the show, of which I genuinely hope there are many.
Girlfriend runs at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre through August 9th. Tickets range from $30 to $54 and can be purchased at Center Theatre Group’s website.