Theatre Review: “Girlfriend” @ Berkeley Rep, 04/14/10

It’s been a big year for Berkeley Rep this year! Their fall musical, American Idiot, is opening on Broadway tomorrow, April 20th, 2010 and their world premiere of Girlfriend opened over the weekend on their intimate Thrust stage.

The story of Girlfriend is a simple one. Boy meets boy, boy falls in love, boy moves away and breaks up, boy finds him again (through fate), and everyone lives happily ever after. That’s it. The main conflict being that Will (Ryder Bach) and Mike (Jason Hite) are in love with each other but don’t know how to show it because they aren’t comfortable with their own sexuality. They struggle with communicating to each other and even being out in public together –  though they do go to the drive-in movies every night to see the same movie, “Evangeline”. Their struggle is only slightly resolved when they finally share a small sweet kiss one evening as they are stargazing. It’s only then do they realize that they have the confidence to do more but unfortunately the summer is almost over.

Most of the evening was filled with awkward pregnant pauses between Will and Mike as they try to generate conversation and express their feelings. Both actors are super successful as they milk every second and gesture into perfect awkwardness (quite comedically). Both of their unassuming and guileless performances sell Todd Almond’s script in a way that’s perfectly suited for the material and characters.

Almond’s insertion of Matthew Sweet’s music and employing most of the songs from his hit album “Girlfriend” might be seen as ground-breaking and über creative, but they are reaching far back to earlier musical theatre conventions of the 1900’s by inserting popular-styled music into a story line without really using the music as a plot-driven device. The music is still great though, especially if you love that 90’s inspired rock music. The all girl back-up band (drums, bass, guitar and guitar/keys) re-creates that 90’s sound almost flawlessly and effortlessly. Bach and Hite sing all of the songs with ease and both sounded great!

There were several emotionally charged moments that the music accompanied – the first conversation, right before the first kiss, the break-up, the make-up – that never seemed to fit with the emotionally charged script. It felt more like a soundtrack to a movie, rather than a musical. I do love the fact that the guys are able to express their feelings through music in almost a Glee-inspired way but because Almond had a limited musical catalogue to work with, some of the songs just didn’t seem to gel. (Three of the songs are pulled from Matthew Sweet’s other albums, Altered Beast and 100% Fun.)

There were a few lovely moments with the music: the first song, “I’ve Been Waiting” was uniquely integrated into the script and “We’re the Same” was a beautiful song at the end of Act I. The title song, “Girlfriend” started by using the Matthew Sweet recording as the two leads listened to it on the radio. About half way through, the band jumped in and Bach and Hite started singing. It was quite a fun way to present the most popular song of the night, but at the same time it felt extremely strange to see them break out in song half-way through. “You Don’t Love Me”, the break-up song, was not even sung by the two leads, rather this song was sung in entirety by the band. It truly became a musical soundtrack at that point. Each song approached the material in such a different way that it became disjunct.

I love that Girlfriend is trying to do something unique with it’s interesting portrayal of the story using Matthew Sweet’s music but I only wish that the music helped connect me more emotionally to the story more. While, I don’t foresee this being a Broadway blockbuster as American Idiot is turning out to be, I do believe the story – albeit a very simple one – turns out to be a sweet lovely story that you can’t help falling in love with.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street,
Berkeley, CA 94704-1103
Administration 510 647-2900 / fax 510 647-2976
Box office 510 647-2949
Box office hours Tues-Sun, noon-7pm
Groups save up to 20% — call 510 647-2918

Make sure you check out The Broadway Critic’s interview with Jason Hite, here.

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