Monday, May 3, 2010
Sweet Sweet Lovin': "Girlfriend" at Berkeley Rep
Over the weekend I went to see the new musical Girlfriend at Berkeley Rep. (Full disclosure: one of my friends from college was operating one of the spotlights--I made sure to applaud extra hard after the songs that featured her expert tracking of the actors with the spotlight!)
Like American Idiot earlier in the season, Girlfriend is a "jukebox" musical--it is based on the pop-rock music of Matthew Sweet, particularly his album Girlfriend, from 1991. I had never heard of Sweet before I saw this show (the early '90s are kind of a cultural blind spot for me), but it's good music--timeless, poppy, earnest and melodic.
In Berkeley Rep's Girlfriend, the music is played by a 4-person all-female band (styled and costumed to look like butch lesbians) and sung by two young actors, Ryder Bach and Jason Hite, as they enact the story of two gay Midwestern teenagers struggling to express their attraction to each other. Neither the characters nor the plot is going to win many points for originality; it's the old story of young love having to overcome societal obstacles. And it's a wish-fulfillment fantasy too: one of the boys is a geeky, epicene outcast and the other is a smart, guitar-playing, All-American jock. And perhaps the show (which runs about 2:05, with intermission) takes a little too long to tell its sweet but slender story.
At the same time, though, the audience really does fall in love with these characters--and, as a writer, that is not an easy effect to acheive. It is much easier to shock or offend an audience, than it is to make people care for your characters as though they are real human beings--and say "awww" aloud as the story wraps up. While the Girlfriend boys are archetypes, there is an attempt to give them backstories and witty dialogue that fleshes out their characters--they are several degrees more rounded than the young men of American Idiot. The Green Day musical certainly got my heart pumping to a punk-rock rhythm, but it didn't stir my emotions; Girlfriend left me with a sweet little smile.
Though Berkeley Rep is doing its best to encourage the link, American Idiot might actually be the wrong musical to compare Girlfriend to. The more I think about it, the more Girlfriend reminds me of a contemporary version of Kneehigh's/ACT's Brief Encounter (my review): a story of a love that society wants to repress, a wish-fulfillment fantasy where a mousy protagonist finds himself/herself desired by a smart, handsome, successful guy. And all accompanied by the most upbeat pop music of the era. In both cases, too, the show is not only about the love between its two lead characters. It's about our love for these kinds of stories and songs, and the enduring hold they have on our imaginations; about the fact that we all can remember what song we were listening to in high school when that special someone glanced our way...