By Jeff Walsh
When I first saw the program for Girlfriend, a new musical based on Matthew Sweet's 1991 album of the same name, I was surprised to only see two names on the cast list. I knew the show was about two teenaged boys who fall in love, but where would the drama come from? It just seemed a tall order to have no outside pressures or voices.
Watching the beginning of the show, though, made me think of a lot of the journals I see here on Oasis on a regular basis, and then I immediately remembered that gay teens don't need external forces to create drama. You can do enough damage on your own.
Girlfriend obviously takes place in the recent past, as the popular student Mike gives the nerdier gay boy Will a mix tape of songs he likes. Like, a literal cassette tape (You can see what one looks like here). Will, of course tries to figure out why this boy, who has all but ignored him for years, is now giving him cassettes and wanting to talk on the phone right before graduation. The mix tape becomes the soundtrack of their relationship, the songs they sing alone and together, and the way they can let their feelings come to the surface in ways they don't when they're just awkwardly talking.
I'd been a fan of Matthew Sweet back in the day, and especially this album, so it was interesting to see familiar songs sculpted to take on new meanings. Especially these lines from "I've Been Waiting:"
I didn't think I'd find you
Perfect in so many ways
But I've been waiting...
Will is the obvious gay one, but back in a time where being obvious didn't mean actually admitting it. And Mike certainly doesn't make it easy for Will, as they awkwardly go to the drive-in repeatedly, despite the fact that the movie never changes. It's the sort of thing where a lot is unspoken, and each really wants the other to say it first.
Matthew Sweet has always been known for creating beautiful pop melodies and songs that are earnest and straightforward, in a time when that wasn't necessarily in fashion. And the show gives us two endearing characters that we want to see push through their nerves and connect with one another. If anything, the show lacks a great scene to build to, like in "Beautiful Thing" where the boys finally dance out in the open in front of everyone else. This is a smaller, quirkier relationship, but it was still worthwhile to experience.
Both Ryder Bach (Will) and Jason Hite (Mike) have great singing voices, and made you see the yearning and conflicts from both sides of the relationship. And the hot band of butch girls that plays the live music certainly filled the room with sweet harmonies and tasty guitar licks.
This is the second time in a year that the Berkeley Rep has brought a musical to the stage based on an existing album. The first one, American Idiot, based on Green Day's amazing album, just opened on Broadway this past week. Girlfriend isn't as audacious or energized (although, unlike American Idiot, it does have a good story), but it's still a sweet, musical journey set in a time gone by, but about timeless things.
If you're in the Bay Area, Girlfriend was recently extended and is now playing through May 16. You can get more information here: http://berkeleyrep.org/season/0910/3656.asp