Tara Kennedy, Chief Connecticut Critic, Connecticut Critics Circle/ATCA
"People say, '[Girlfriend] is your big breakup record – will you still be able to write good songs?' I'm sure I'll be just as depressed at some other point in my life." – Matthew Sweet, in an interview in Entertainment Weekly
Ah, the 1990s. When flannel and Doc Martins went with everything, and grunge rock music reigned supreme. CDs were just starting to come out, but the mix tape still was THE way to solidify a friendship, commemorate an event, or hint to someone that you *like* like them. It’s this iconic musical gesture that launches the story in Todd Almond’s musical, “Girlfriend,” which tells the tale of two young men finding themselves through their friendship and eventual romance.
It’s understandable how Matthew Sweet’s power-pop album, “Girlfriend,” could be a score to a musical. The songs were all recorded by him following his divorce in 1990 and they expose his feelings about the entire relationship. He commented to Rolling Stone, “It's funny how the album ended up showing everything I needed to feel. Everything I needed as an antidote is there." There is emotion throughout the songwriting with a natural timeline feel and flow, making it a great fit for the musical theatre genre.
By chance, I saw this musical in Louisville, KY in 2013 and I barely remembered it. I figured that meant it wasn’t a great show, but it also probably wasn’t terrible. I can say without a doubt that it is the actors and direction that make this production sing like it does; Theaterworks’ production is heartfelt and fun with fantastic performances that present with honesty. It’s an 85-minute love song mix tape that’s a treat for the soul, complete with a live rock band onstage.
It’s 1993 in Alliance, Nebraska. School’s out for summer and Will (David Merino) is thrilled. He’s graduated from high school and is relieved about it. Being gay and in the middle of the Midwest doesn’t exactly make you the most popular guy in the senior class. But someone has piqued his interest: a cute jock, Mike (CJ Pawlikowski), started to talk to him in class and handed him a cassette tape of music he thought Will might like. It’s songs by Matthew Sweet, and Will is hooked on the songs… and Mike. And Mike is in the throes of discovering his homosexuality while trying to be what his father expects of him.
I adored Mr. Merino’s portrayal of Will. Through his performance, we see Will as a warm, earnest young man experiencing first love. The looks he gives Mike when they’re at the drive-in are dead-on perfect, as is his uneasiness around Mike when they first start hanging out together. Mr. Pawlikowski is an excellent contrast to Mr. Merino physically and in attitude; after all he is the class jock. What makes Mike a challenging role is that he is a dichotomy struggling to sort out who he is, and Mr. Pawlikowski does a great job portraying that inner battle. Both actors depict the believable teenager: awkward, naïve, unsure, yet hopeful and looking for answers to their life ahead.
(Quick Public Service Announcement: Theaters everywhere (including Broadway), take a note from the Theaterworks playbook: When a show calls for a character to play the guitar, even if they are not amplified, please cast an actor who CAN PLAY the guitar. Because we in the audience know when the actor doesn’t know how to play, and it’s aggravating. End PSA.)
So, are the characters a little two-dimensional? Yes, but that is overcome by the actors’ performances and the direction. It’s probably why the Louisville production of this show was forgettable for me. Is the situation fully believable? Not really, especially when you consider the murder of Matthew Shepard is only 5 years and 1 state away. But I look at this piece as a moment in time, and the way it is written – with no other characters on stage – I believe that is the intention of the playwright. The result is that the audience is in a microcosm along with Will and Mike, and for a one-act jukebox musical, it works.
So, for all of you Matthew Sweet fans out there (and others), don’t miss this charming love story that will leave you smiling and humming on your way out the door.
“Girlfriend” presented by TheaterWorks at the Wadsworth Athenaeum (Avery entrance at 29 Atheneum Square North) playing now through April 28, 2019. Book by Todd Almond. Music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Music Direction by Evan Zavada. Starring David Merino and CJ Pawlikowski. Web site to purchase tickets: http://www.theaterworkshartford.org/