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A CurtainUpSan Francisco Review

My life has finally become the musical I always suspected it was.—Will
(l to r) Ryder Bach and Jason Hite star in
Photo courtesy of
There's something in the air at Berkeley Rep lately; it doesn't quite smell like teen spirit, but it certainly sounds like rock. In the same month that American Idiot, the angsty punk-infused musical that explores perilous youth through the music of Green Day, made its explosive Broadway debut, Berkeley Rep—where Idiot premiered last year— ransacks another songwriter's catalog to bring us Girlfriend, a smaller, though no less moving musical that uses pop music to explore the inner worlds of its characters.

In terms of style and structure, Girlfriend is as predictable as they come, at least on its surface. Two high school students are smitten with one another, but they must overcome a major conflict in order to be together. Angst, woe, power ballad. The End.

But not so fast. In Girlfriend, there is no girlfriend—at least not in any dimensional form. Instead, we are introduced to Will and Mike, two sweet and wholesome-looking boys getting ready to graduate from high school in a small town in Nebraska, of all places (full disclosure: that's where I grew up and went to high school). Nerdy, witty Will knows he's gay, although it doesn't seem like he's done much to pursue a relationship, while Mike, the quintessential hunky jock, only knows that he likes to spend time with Will. At first, this mostly means sitting uncomfortably at a drive-in and watching the same movie night after night.

Still sounds like something you've seen before, right? But trust me—it's nothing you've heard before. The magic ingredient here is the music of Matthew Sweet, who was born in Nebraska and who rocketed to fame in the '90s with, most notably, his popular album Girlfriend. Under the precise, poignant direction of Les Waters, the musical draws from this bouncy, buoyant set of songs and also pulls in a few songs from two of Sweet's other albums.

Together with Todd Almond, who wrote the clever and often hilarious book, Sweet has created a chamber musical that truly rocks. The story doesn't get much more complicated than Mike's getting ready to head to college in Lincoln, while Will has no plans as of yet. But the music creates blissfully subtle layers of character, and it cues up organically. These characters don't grab random melodies out of midair. When Mike gives Will a cassette tape (yes, this is the '90s) filled with Sweet's songs, the boys are instantly connected by a musical thread that neither of them wants to sever. Pumped through their headphones, hummed over the phone, riffed on a guitar, or blasted from a car stereo, this music defines their relationship and gives them a shared language and emotional vocabulary.

I went to high school in Nebraska in the '90s; since then, my midsize high school has founded its own GLBT group. However, while I was there, people with sexual preferences outside of the heterosexual norm remained firmly closeted, so a story like Girlfriend is powerful, indeed. Certainly, the music doesn't make Will and Mike's future any easier. Almond too easily skims over some tricky issues here and there, but this story taps into our universal need to communicate and to be understood, no matter what the barriers.

Backed by a powerful band led by music director Julie Wolf (who doubles on rhythm guitar and keyboards), Bach and Hite both demonstrate excellent voices and robust acting chops. They carry off their roles with sensitivity, charm, and plenty of onstage chemistry. David Zinn's simple set houses the band upstage in what looks like a wood-paneled den strung with twinkle lights while downstage, a multi-purpose couch easily morphs into the front seat of a car. Only Joe Goode's choreography feels less than coherent. It seems to imitate the inherently modern movement of Bill T. Jones's work in Spring Awakening, but it doesn't connect very visibly or forcibly with Sweet's music or with the actors' emotion.

In his New York Times review of the Broadway production of American Idiot, Charles Isherwood described the music as "reflecting the moment in youth when many of us feel that pop music has more to say about us than we have to say for ourselves." For Green Day, that sounds like gritty punk rock, but Matthew Sweet heard something brighter. His songs are sometimes saturated with unrequited longing and moody melodies, but they more frequently keep a lookout for sunshine during a storm. If you've ever nurtured a summer crush, played an album over and over, or absorbed the lyrics of a song until they felt like they were part of you, I predict that you'll find yourself head over heels with Girlfriend, too.

Editor's Note: To read Curtainup's review of the Broadway production go here.

By Todd Almond (book) and Matthew Sweet (music and lyrics)
Choreographed by Joe Goode
Directed by Les Waters

Cast: Ryder Bach (Will), Jason Hite (Mike)
Music Director: Julie Wolf
Vocal Arrangements and Additional Orchestrations: Todd Almond
Scenic & Costume Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Jake Rodriguez
Stage Manager: Michael Suenkel
Lead Guitar: Shelley Doty
Drums: ieela Grant
Bass: Jean DuSablon
Rhythm Guitar/Keyboards: Julie Wolf
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street
(510) 647-2949
Tickets ($13.50-71.00)
Performances: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8pm; Wednesdays at 7pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm; Sundays at 2pm and 7pm
From 4/9/2010; opening 4/14/10; closes 5/9/10 Review by Amy Krivohlavek based on performance 4/17/10
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