Based on Matthew Sweet’s 1991 alternative-rock album of the same name, Kitchen Theatre’s first production of the 2018-19 season, Girlfriend, has everything you’d expect from a classic summer rom-com — the meet cute, the mutual pining, the awkward yet exhilarating first date, the inevitable challenges and their resolution. What makes Girlfriend different from the start, however, is that instead of boy-meets-girl, it’s boy-meets-boy, in a small, conservative, midwestern town.
It’s the summer of 1993 in Alliance, Nebraska, and Will (Jonathan Melo) is still celebrating graduating high school and his new-found freedom when he receives a mixtape out of the blue from a classmate, Mike (Woody White). Unlike Will, a musical theater nerd constantly bullied at school for his sexuality, Mike is the golden boy of the football team with a (rather absent) girlfriend and a full ride to college, and it had seemed unlikely for their paths to ever cross. What they share, however, is a passion for music. And just as Will starts to listen to the the mixtape, Mike calls and asks him to a drive-in movie. From there, a delicate yet electric romance unfolds.
I went into Girlfriend with apprehension, to say the least. I didn’t know what to expect from a story created around an existing album — a process that seemed backwards and incredibly difficult to navigate. The only musical I knew that was created from an existing album was Green Day’s American Idiot which, incidentally, also premiered at Berkeley Rep in the 2009-10 season, only a few months before Girlfriend. The processes through which the two musicals are created, however, are wildly different. While Billie Joe Armstrong himself was very much involved in the creation of American Idiot’s story, Girlfriend was born out of playwright Todd Almond’s love for Sweet’s album, almost two decades after its first release.
In an interview, Almond reminisced on the impact Sweet’s album had on him back when it first came out, and described the process of creating a story from the songs as picking up “breadcrumbs” from the lyrics. Indeed, Almond did a tremendous job stringing together clues from Sweet’s songs, rearranging them in a way that tells a story vastly different from the one Sweet set out to tell back in 1991, right after his divorce. And though the songs were written about heterosexual relationships, the general sentiment and core ideas within the lyrics are not specific to any gender or age. They illustrate themes of romantic relationships that are in fact quite universal — our desire for companionship, the need for understanding and support, apprehension for what the future holds — and for the most part fit surprisingly well into the narrative of a budding young love.
Yet my initial apprehension also proved to be in part correct. While there are quite a few songs — notably “Evangeline,” in which Mike and Will “improvise” about the movie they watch at the drive-in, and “We Are the Same,” through which they acknowledge their feelings for one another — that feel tailored for the story (a rather astonishing achievement, if you ask me), there are also moments when the lyrics are glaringly out of place and remind me that the music and the story were not exactly made for each other. And since the lyrics offer little help in pushing the plot to develop, there is little room left for any sort of deep dive into important themes. The story sways between wanting to explore the difficulties and dangers of being in a same-sex relationship in a conservative town in the ’90s and treating the gay romance like a straight one (i.e. focusing only on the challenges within the relationship itself). In the end, the plot finds itself stuck in the middle, and if you’re like me and live for the dramatic conflict, you might leave the theater feeling a little unsatisfied.
Do I think the playwright could’ve done better, given the circumstances? No. But do I wish the story was just a little more cohesive? Yeah.
All that being said, the production itself is a delight, no doubt. The simple yet intimate set design, comprising bean bags, blankets, band posters and string lights, offers a unique glimpse into the private space of teenagers. And despite wishing for a more complex plot, I spent the better part of the eighty minutes giggling at the adorably awkward way Mike and Will danced around each other, smiling at how well youth, innocence and romantic feelings were captured in every gesture and every facial expression. The lead actors have incredible chemistry, not just with each other, but with the music and the story, and every line they sing comes from the heart, which more than makes up for any inconsistency between the lyrics and the story. As the lights dim on Mike and Will, and the live band’s music fades out, the audience is left with warmth in their hearts and a fondness for what it’s like to be young.
Girlfriend is showing at Kitchen Theatre Company (417 West State Street) Wednesdays through Sundays until September 30, 2018.
Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.