Broadway Features and Reviews
"Girlfriend" Amazes At Berkeley Repertory Theater
By Linda Hodges, Broadway Magazine
What does a guy do -- who's supposed to be a straight boy with straight A's, straight out of high school – when he finds himself falling for the boy next door? Make him a mix-tape of course!
So begins Berkeley Repertory Theater's world premiere of "Girlfriend," a lovingly sweet, romantic dream of a show that captures the moment when learning ends and life begins. Inspired by the joyous rock songs of Matthew Sweet (played by a stellar all-girl ensemble), "Girlfriend" tells the timeless story of the awkwardness that first love can bring just when you're trying to figure out who you really are. New love, self doubt and quixotic hope are universal themes, made all the more poignant by the fact that the two leads are the same sex.
Taking the lead along with Will (Ryder Bach) and Mike (Jason Hite) is the simple, poetically innocent and touching story by Todd Almond whose comedic brilliance, fearless honesty and deft talent make this musical a not-to-be missed event. Almond quietly explores teenage angst and the struggle to be true to your authentic self versus just wanting to fit in – something all teens face but gay teens even more so.
Set in 1990's Nebraska, (whose state motto is Equality before the law) we meet gay, sweetly funny Will, played wonderfully (he will make you smile) by Ryder Bach. Will informs us that high school is over. It's June 18th which means its New Year's for him – the start of something new and his "New Year" resolution is to drop his bad habit of learning things and really start living his life.
He doesn't realize that his real learning has just begun.
He is the recipient of a mixed tape from a boy named Mike and this makes Will deliriously happy – so happy that he tells us "My life has finally become the musical I always suspected it was." When Mike invites him to the drive-in movies Will decides that this is the best New Year's ever.
What follows is a funny but awkward time at the drive-in where a closed up and closeted Mike says little to nothing, while nervous Will talks and talks, commenting at one point about the violence in the movie, "Wouldn't it be funny if they started singing?" he asks hopefully. "If they just threw down their guns?" When Mike says nothing he adds, "I wish people did that…" his voice trailing off, nervously, into silence. Mike speaks at last, asking about the mixed tape. He informs Will that he really, really likes music.
It is the music -- the rock beats and tuneful ballads of Matthew Sweet – that will turn out to be the outlet that Mike needs in order to share his true feelings with Will and that will finally allow their love to grow.
Soaring rock lyrics help the teens break out of their Nebraska cornhusker quiet, while the harmonious ballads serve to underscore the moments of uncertainty along the bumpy road to love. Hite is the stronger singer of the two but the normalcy of Bach's voice fits in well with his character's tender qualities.
Hite is brilliant as the confused Mike who struggles with his father's demands, his plans for college in the fall and the need to finally deal with his homosexuality. "Did you ever think how something could be so perfect if you weren't you?" he asks at one point. Hite allows his character to develop slowly as he struggles with his feelings for Will and what those feelings mean for him as a baseball player with a lot of jock friends in the small town that they live in.
The slow crescendo that he builds to the magical first kiss is acting at its best. Ryder Bach is equally talented, his timing and delivery making for the funniest moments of the show as well as the most touching. He is superb, creating a warm and believable character in Will.
When Mike invites him to one of his baseball games, Will decides that, yes, his life is definitely a musical. As things progress and Mike prepares to go to college, Will is left wondering where his own life is going. Perhaps he still has more learning to do after all before his real New Year's dreams can come true.
The show is creatively and ably directed by Les Waters who was inspired to add the all-girl band into the set. It is also aided by the superb lighting design of Japhy Weideman who makes his Berkeley debut with "Girlfriend."
A drive-in movie, a full-on rock concert and a magical starry night are all produced perfectly and convincingly. With sound design by Jake Rodriguez (the train going by is a brilliant feat) and scenic design by David Zinn (where a couch doubles as a car) the show lacks for nothing. Inspired, kids-goofing-off, choreography by Joe Goode sets the stage for a wonderful night at the theater.
"Girlfriend" is that wonderful combination of old and new that bursts forth, fresh with originality, even as it speaks to timeless themes and leaves you remembering your own first love and that time in your life when everything was still to be discovered. Make a resolution to discover "Girlfriend" at Berkeley Repertory Theater – it will be a date night you won't soon forget.
Girlfriend will run April 9-May 9 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $27-$71. Call (510) 647-2949 or (510) 647-2949.
Book by Todd Almond
Music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Choreographed by Joe Goode
Directed by Les Waters
Limited season | Thrust stage
April 9–May 9, 2010
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes,
including one 15 minute intermission
Go to: www.berkeleyrep.org
For additional Broadway features visit http://www.broadway.tv/broadway-features-reviews