“Girlfriend,” a new two-man musical playing through August 9 at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, is not your father’s jukebox musical. Unless, of course your father happens to be a fan of veteran alternative rocker Matthew Sweet.
In which case, Dad may well be surprised to see how Sweet’s classic 1991 album has become the basis for a bittersweet and winsome love story between two Midwestern boys who’ve just graduated from high school.
The witty and well-observed book, by Todd Almond, depicts with heartfelt poignancy the tentative, shuffle-step nature of gay teen romance circa-1990. Will (Ryder Bach) is the obvious outcast of the pair, with his oversize T-shirt, the streak of dyed hair flopping over his forehead and his penchant for musicals. “I already feel like I’m in ‘Grease’–the movie, not the country,” he says at one point.
So Will seems genuinely surprised, not to mention tongue-tied, when the handsome, college-bound jock Mike (Curt Hansen) takes an interest in hanging out with him. “He’s football, prom king. Maybe first runner-up, but you know what I mean,” Will says.
But Mike turns out to have a sensitive side, including a genuine interest in music — the songs of Sweet in particular — and a talent for guitar and singing that he gradually realizes may overshadow his stated plan to pursue a career in medicine like his father. Mike also has an unseen girlfriend from a neighboring town, but it soon becomes clear that he sees in Will a kindred spirit as he questions his own sexual identity.
As directed by Les Waters, Bach and Hansen have honed a natural onstage chemistry with a feel for the awkwardness of adolescence and the excruciating effects of silence.
Like his character, Hansen is a gifted musician, with a strong clear voice. Bach’s vocals are more tentative, and he stumbled a bit on opening night in the higher register, but he harmonized nicely with his co-star on songs like “Evangeline” and “I’ve Been Waiting.”
Indeed, fans of Sweet will find great satisfaction in seeing how Almond deploys the musician’s familiar hits for his story. “Evangeline,” for instance, evokes the absurd comic-book movie that Will and Mike watch, repeatedly, at the local drive-in — one of the clearest signs that the story is set in both rural Nebraska (Sweet’s home state) as well as the early ’90s. (Will’s oversize cordless phone with retractable antenna is another.)
Hansen and Bach are backed by a tight four-piece, all-female band led by Julie Wolf that also provides backup vocals. They occupy an upstage space that has cleverly been decked out (by scenic and costume designer David Zinn) to resemble a ’90s rec room, complete with wood paneling, shag carpet and posters.
The overall staging is simple but evocative, including Joe Goode’s understated choreography. Despite Will’s stated interest in musicals, neither he nor Mike are the jazz-hands type of gay teenagers. Not in that time, not in that place.
Throughout the roughly 90-minute production, Waters and his team seem to recognize that his characters’ approach to romance is cautious, understated and fundamentally Midwestern, rooted in a place where even a brush of the shoulder can seem flamboyant. It’s only when the boys break into song that their hearts really begin to soar.