Theatre Review: Girlfriend at Berkeley Rep, 4/24/10

by Dakin Hardwick on April 26, 2010

I hear you need somebody, I hear your looking for someone to love...

I hear you need somebody, I hear you're looking for someone to love...

In the last decade or so, the musical theater world has been inundated with shows that use pre-existing popular music instead of original works. Well many of these have been very successful, such as Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys and the recent American Idiot, others have been critical and commercial failures, like Footloose and a proposed Radiohead musical.

While the success rate may vary on these, the one thing that they all have in common is the fact that every one of these shows uses music that the masses are very familiar with. There is a built-in audience for the show because of the fans. This show is a little bit different, though. It shows that the good people at Berkeley Rep are willing to take a risk. They are brave enough to chance a musical based on a relatively obscure power-pop record from the early ’90s, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend.

I own this record, and I’ve enjoyed it greatly over the years.  It’s a fun record, but I’ve never really felt it was telling a cohesive story. Just to make this review a bit more pure, I brought a guest along with me that was completely unfamiliar with Sweet. Since the vast majority of theatergoers would be unfamiliar with the source material, I felt that this was an appropriate guest.

The story line is a pretty simple love story. Two people slowly fall in love with each other, but, for various different reasons, they have difficulty keeping this love going despite the fact that the entire audience knows that they are destined for each other. We’ve been getting this same tale re-told to us since before Romeo & Juliet.

This time, it’s a little bit different. First of all, this is the story of two boys falling in love. It’s the tale of Will, a young man that has recently graduated from high school, whose feelings of joy over school ending had prevented him from making any plans for afterward. On one of the last days of school, he ends up giving his phone number to Mike, a star athlete that intends on going to med school to become a brain surgeon. Their early romances are portrayed with an honest awkwardness that is funny only because we have all been there.

Not to give away too much of the meat of the show, but we follow these two boys throughout the summer. Mike is worried about preparing for college while trying to impress his father, who seems to have unrealistic goals set for him, and he crumbles under the stress of it all. Will has no idea what he wants, but is overjoyed by the fact that he is even getting attention from such a high-profile classmate.

The performances are excellent in this production. Both Ryder Bach and Jason Hite bring a depth and warmth to these characters that draws in the audience. They understand the delicate balance of the comedy-drama, knowing where to hit the punchlines and when to aim for the heartstrings, and sometimes managing to hit both cues at once without the audience even realizing it. It’s all the more impressive that the entire cast consists of just these two gentlemen. Any peripheral folks are left to the imagination.

So, the acting I’ll give an A+ to, and the story line gets a B+. The most difficult thing to rate is how the music fits in. They don’t use all of the original Girlfriend album, instead opting to pick and choose which songs work best. This helped a little bit, and the integration works well at times, at other times it falls a little flat. The biggest problems are with the record’s two singles, the songs “I’ve Been Waiting” and the title track. These songs felt a little bit thrown in, just out there as songs for songs sake. They didn’t help move the story along at all; they just felt like the show needed some “hits.” On the other hand, some songs fit in seamlessly. Tracks like “Winona” and “We’re The Same” felt like classic Broadway romantic torch songs, and the use of “Evangeline” made for one of the funniest bits in musical theater history. (I’ll just say that recasting the protagonist in the songs as a crime fighting superhero nun was inspired brilliance.)

The musical performances themselves were good, but not great. The mix of the band was a little bit too tinny for my liking, but that is merely a preference. The band played very well, and seemed to have an equally good time doing the ballads as they did the 90’s rock rave-ups. Hite’s singing was always spot-on during the set, although some of the songs were a tad outside of Bach’s vocal range, and he had a tendency to fall flat a little bit. However, the small complaints were very minor when looking at the greater good.

The intimacy of the show was one of the biggest successes of the show. Not only is it an intimate theater, but any time you have a cast of two, you as an audience will be getting close to them. This was a fun and romantic night of theater, and I highly recommend it not only for fans of Matthew Sweet and ’90s power pop, but for anyone that’s looking for a good date-night experience, and is ready to laugh out loud and have a great song or two stuck in your head afterward.

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Girlfriend has recently been extended til May 16th at the Thrust Theater at Berkeley Rep.  Tickets are available here.

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