Girlfriend, a distinctly gay love story built around a specific alt-rock album, delivers a universal narrative of first time young love and the music that makes the teen years survivable.
Jimmy Mavrikes stars as Will, an aimless young man in a small Nebraska town. He has an impossible crush on college-bound athlete Mike (Lukas James Miller). As the musical opens, we hear Mike’s tape of Matthew Sweet’s album ‘Girlfriend’ coming from Will’s boombox. What starts as a music connection between them blossoms into the excruciating awkwardness and intensity of a teen romance.
Mavrikes has excellent comic timing where called for and his musicals background shinesthrough with the songs. He also captures the misery of Will’s unrequited love in a terribly identifiable way. Miller, so handsome that it’s like we are seeing an idealized Mike through Will’s eyes, nails Mike’s halting vulnerability. The two have a great chemistry and a seemingly bottomless well of energy, especially when singing Sweet’s music.
Throughout the show, Mike, Will and a live band perform ten songs from Sweet’s 1991 album. The band, led by music director Britt Bonney, rocks, pure and simple. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I resisted the urge to dance in my seat, but only just.
closes June 10, 2018
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The energy drops off steeply during the gaps between songs, mostly tense scenes where the young men ever-so-slowly gravitate toward each other. While Mavrikes and Miller find plenty of good moments, these scenes are rather abrupt breaks from the jams.
The show’s design also yo-yos with the show’s energy. Misha Kachman’s set and Colin K. Bills’s lighting are full of flashy color. The stage is a thin strip of bright green astroturf, flanked by lights of many colors. Occasionally, Bills lets loose with full-on concert lighting. A blue brick wall upstage is dominated by a bright orange studio for the band. It’s charming to watch the band react to the show alongside the audience. On either side of the set, Kachman has built re-creations of two early 90s bedrooms, loaded with VHS tapes and doodads.
Much of the show takes place in Mike’s car or sitting on its hood, which takes us away from Kachman’s well-dressed bedrooms and Bills’s daring lights. Instead, we get two wooden chairs, as if the set were improvised.
Girlfriend tells a simple love story. Too many gay characters in fiction get brutal endings, now recognized as the Bury Your Gays trope. There is much to be said about the adversity and tragedy that gay couples face, and Will and Mike do face some. But it is a welcome respite when homophobia is a lesser concern than the fact that your crush is planning on moving away for college.
It is heartwarming to watch Will listen to Mike play his guitar, and heartwarming to listen to them sing Sweet’s songs and let yourself get carried away with that not quite romantic but still deeply felt love. Girlfriend is a reminder of how exciting young love can be. And I was dying to get in my car, and blast Sweet’s album to carry home the feelings.
Girlfriend. Book by Todd Almond. Music & lyrics by Matthew Sweet. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Performed by Jimmy Mavrikes and Lukas James Miller. Music performed by Britt Bonney, Beth Cannon, Nicole Saphos, and Erika Johnson. Musical direction by Britt Bonney. Scenic design by Misha Kachman. Costume design by Frank Labovitz. Lighting design by Colin K. Bills. Sound design by Ryan Hickey. Assistant direction by Taylor Rieland. Stage managed by Brandon Prendergast. Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.