Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Girlfriend": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Matthew Sweet’s album “Girlfriend” came out in 1991. It was never a huge seller but it attracted a loyal army of fans and put Sweet on the map. He has continued to put out records (his latest was released in 2008).

Somewhere along the line playwright Todd Almond fell in love with “Girlfriend” (as well as “Altered Beast” (1993) and “100% Fun” (1995)). These simple songs made such an impression on Almond that he eventually wrote a musical encompassing the songs from these albums. That show, “Girlfriend,” had its World Premiere on April 14 at Berkeley Rep.

But that was last night. Today is April 15 and taxes are due. We loved the brilliant performances of the twin leads (Ryder Bach as Will and Jason Hite as Mike), and the equally brilliant staging and pacing by director Les Waters and choreographer Joe Goode. The four-girl band was very good. Act One was stronger than Act Two, but both had merit and the best musical moments took place at the end of the show.

But these songs! They could be re-titled “Love in the Time of Teenager.” Simple and rocky, cute and pop-y, yes. But memorable? Let’s just say if this very accessible story (boy meets boy, boy anguishes about boy, boy gets boy, boy leaves for college) was the original genesis of the show and the playwright had written some music for his story, you’d say: "Nice story. Music Needs Work."

But Almond constructed his boy loves boy story around Sweet’s music. It must be said that in terms of commercial viability, the show’s simplicity, combined with the two actors’ vulnerability and familiar struggles with first love, might very well add up to a blockbuster; we can’t help but wish, though, that a story this – well, sweet – would have had contrasting or at least challenging music to support it.

That said, the showstopper number “Your Sweet Voice” (sung in FALSETTO while LYING DOWN! – try THAT, American Idolers), is a tour de force. The song’s depth, coupled with Bach and Hite’s delivery, gives us an idea of what might have been.

Or what might be. One Opening Night does not a theater work make. Ryder Bach is a star. He is wry, he is honest, he projects calm from a tortured interior. Jason Hite gives us the opposite: torture on the surface but a clear path underneath. Mike will dally and move on; Will will stay home and think about Mike the rest of his life. “I hate this town,” Mike says. “It’s not so bad,” answers Will.

We wish the ending were stronger. We wish the songs hit harder. This is the bottom line. You walk out of the theater thinking: “Well, OK, boys.” We’d much prefer, like Will, that our heart were broken in tiny pieces.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards “Girlfriend” Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The acting is -- there’s no other word for it -- beautiful. Bach and Hite’s performances are true to the music, true to the sentiment of the songs. Each earns one star and the production team a third. The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the scenes on the sofa (supposedly the front seat of Mike’s car) at the drive-in. Neither boy knows what to do next. If Mike puts his hand on his own knee, Will does it too. If Mike laughs, Will laughs. It’s such a touching remembrance of our first awkward lurches into adulthood.

The bad popcorn and the drive-in movie. We are all there with Will and Mike. This shared memory is the show’s power. It is certain to resonate with every person in every audience.


Berkeley Rep, Thrust Stage
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 9

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